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Recent Supreme Court Decisions

Written by Randy Means, Zachary Miller

The most recent term of the United States Supreme Court concluded on June 30 and, until June 25, the term was not especially significant to police law watchers. But with the Court’s end-of-term decisions in Riley v. California and its companion case, United States v. Wurie, the Supreme Court took a much anticipated and monumental leap into the realm of 21st century technology, carrying the Fourth Amendment along with it. 

While unanimously affirming core Fourth Amendment principles and applying the traditional balancing-of-interests test, the Court laid the groundwork for the manner in which law enforcement officers, moving forward, must view individual privacy interests when seeking digital evidence of a crime. Riley and Wurie are discussed below, along with other constitutional law cases of interest to law enforcement.  There were a total of six cases dealing with the Fourth Amendment but no Fifth or Sixth Amendment police law cases.

 

Hot Foot Pursuit/Qualified Immunity

This case of Stanton v. Sims (Nov. 4, 2013) involved the question of whether an officer in “hot pursuit” can enter private premises—in this case a solidly fenced and gated residential curtilage—to arrest a suspect for a minor but jailable misdemeanor offense, here the failure to obey an officer’s order to stop. 

A female bystander was injured when the foot pursuit continued onto the curtilage of her fenced property and she was inadvertently struck by her gate when the officer forced it open to continue his pursuit. Her civil lawsuit alleged, among other things, that the officer violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches when he entered the curtilage of her property without a warrant or consent. 

In this type of lawsuit, an officer is entitled to immunity from civil liability if he can show that his actions did not violate clearly established constitutional principles—that he was operating in a grey area in which the law was not clearly settled. In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that the officer was indeed entitled to qualified immunity. The law regarding the involved constitutional question was not clearly established at the time of the incident. 

And it still isn’t. Although the officer in this instance was shielded from civil liability, it is important to understand what the Court did not do in this case. Although the officer won, the Court did not hold that the officer’s warrantless entry was lawful. It only held that the law in this area is unsettled and that the officer therefore qualified for immunity from civil liability. Like many other cases in which federal courts grant qualified immunity to a law enforcement officer, law enforcement officers should not necessarily read such a pronouncement as judicial approval for the actions of the officers involved.

As federal law currently stands, it is pretty clear that an officer who is in hot pursuit of a suspect based on probable cause to arrest for a felony offense may continue that pursuit into private premises without a warrant or consent as necessary to complete the arrest process. If, however, the suspect’s offense is a misdemeanor, there is a pronounced split of opinions among the federal courts of appeals and among state appeals courts. That is, in many (but not all) jurisdictions the seriousness and/or dangerousness of the suspected offense will be determinative, as in situations applying the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. 

Until the Supreme Court squarely addresses this issue, officers in hot pursuit situations unfortunately will need to remember the law of their own appeals courts to know what they can and cannot do under the Fourth Amendment. Even if the Supreme Court resolves the federal issue, state appeals courts may interpret state law to be more restrictive than the federal Constitution. The safe choice, at least as long as these uncertainties continue, would be to refrain from entering private premises in hot pursuit unless it involves relatively serious and/or dangerous subject matter—as in exigent circumstances.   

 

Consent Searches

In Fernandez v. California (Feb. 2, 2014), the Supreme Court considered an extension of the rule first announced in Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006). Randolph held that where both adult co-residents of a jointly occupied residence are present, the denial of consent to search the common areas of the premises by one party overrules an otherwise valid consent to do so given by the other party. In Fernandez, the question presented was whether the refusal to grant consent remains prohibitive even after the objecting party has left the premises and the consenting party remains, continuing to consent.

Fernandez and his girlfriend were both present in their shared apartment when officers arrived there as part of a robbery investigation. During the course of the investigation, Fernandez refused to give his consent to search the apartment. By that time, though, officers had developed probable cause to arrest Fernandez for assaulting his girlfriend, so he was lawfully arrested and taken to jail. 

Officers returned to the apartment approximately an hour later and received consent from the girlfriend to search the apartment, where they located evidence implicating Fernandez in the robbery. At his trial, that evidence was used against him to secure his conviction. His subsequent appeals led to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the question was whether the Randolph rule still applies, even after the party denying consent has left the premises (in this case courtesy of the arresting officers).

The Supreme Court held that Randolph will be interpreted narrowly to mean that the denial of consent is only effective while the objecting party remains actually present. Since Fernandez was no longer present, his acknowledged refusal to grant consent no longer applied and his girlfriend’s consent was sufficient.  The Court further explained that the manner in which Fernandez left the premises—here at the hands of the police—was not a relevant factor so long as the police action was objectively reasonable. Any subjective motivation that the officers may have had in making the arrest was irrelevant because the arrest of Fernandez was objectively reasonable.

 

Anonymous Tips/Drunk Driving

In the very strange decision in Navarette v. California (April 22, 2014), the Court addressed the question of whether an anonymous tip from a motorist, alleging an act potentially indicative of drunk driving by another motorist, can, by itself, form reasonable suspicion to stop the alleged drunk driver. Here, an unnamed motorist called the police to state that a particular vehicle just ran her off the road. 

A short time later, officers located the vehicle on the road, followed it a short distance but noticed no law violation, then stopped the vehicle based upon the anonymous complaint. Arrest and conviction ensued.  Appeals wound their way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held that, under the specific circumstances of this case, there was reasonable suspicion for the stop.

Because the holding in this case relied on strained facts very specific to this case and because the 5-4 majority opinion was not well developed or even very understandable (see the blistering dissent), officers should use considerable caution when relying on the holding of this case as authority to make a similar stop. 

Rather, officers who find themselves in a like situation are better advised to either (1) attempt to gather more information from the caller, (2) develop independent reasonable suspicion, (3) or attempt to engage the driver of the vehicle in a purely voluntary contact, should the vehicle being followed come naturally to a stop somewhere.

 

Vehicle Pursuit/Deadly Force

Plumhoff v. Rickard (May 27, 2014) involved a vehicle pursuit, which ended in the death of the driver and passenger of the fleeing vehicle. During the pursuit, numerous officers’ lives were threatened by the manner in which the fleeing vehicle was being driven. Police officers shot and killed both (eventually learned to be unarmed) occupants while they remained non-compliant in the vehicle as it came to a stop.    The deceased driver’s family sued the officers alleging, among other things, a violation of the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights in the officers’ use of deadly force. The Supreme Court held for the officers.

Of particular interest was the Court’s response to the plaintiff’s allegation that the officers’ firing of 15 shots in 10 seconds was unreasonable. The Court held that the officers were not required to stop shooting until it was clear that the threat has been stopped. Since this was a lawsuit filed by the driver’s family, the Court did not consider the reasonableness of the deadly force against the other occupant. Also, the fact that the officers’ actions were not unconstitutional does not rule out a state law-based tort claim in a similar case where state law might be friendlier to plaintiffs than Fourth Amendment law.

 

Cell Phone Searches

Both Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie (June 25, 2014) involve the warrantless search of an arrestee’s cell phone incident to a lawful arrest. Under the rule first announced in United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973), every lawful custodial arrest carries with it the authority for an officer to conduct a full warrantless search of the arrestee’s person, any carried belongings and the area within his immediate control, to include opening and examining the contents of any closed container. 

That case identified two underlying rationales: (1) the need of the police to disarm an arrestee prior to taking him into custody and (2) the need to secure any evidence or contraband in the arrestee’s possession that might otherwise be lost or destroyed. 

Lower appeals courts have been deeply divided as to whether the Robinson bright-line rule extended to the warrantless viewing of the digital contents of a cell phone found in an arrestee’s possession—but the answer is now found in the Supreme Court’s new rulings in Riley and Wurie. Such warrantless searches of the digital contents of a cell phone (and presumably other types of computers) are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. A search warrant is now the rule. Warrantless searches of digital content on electronic devices incident to arrest are out.

An officer conducting a search incident to arrest is still permitted to open a cell phone (such as a flip phone) or otherwise physically examine the device to determine that it is not a weapon. There are exceptions to the warrant requirement, even regarding digital content. If there is probable cause to believe that an actual emergency exists where there is an immediate need to examine the digital contents of the phone to avert serious injury or death, or the loss or destruction of evidence of a serious crime, or the escape of a serious criminal, a warrantless search would be permitted. Of course, seeking consent to search from the owner or possessor of the phone is always an option.

 

Zachary Miller is a police officer and serves as Associate Director of the Police Authority Training System (PATS), a national computer-based legal training initiative of the Thomas & Means Law Firm.

 

Randy Means is formerly head of the legal department at a state law enforcement training center, in-house counsel to a major city police department, past head of the national association of police attorneys (IACP-LOS). He can be reached at rbmeans@aol.com. His book, The Law of Policing, is available online.


Published in Law and Order, Aug 2014

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