Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ignorance of the Law--by the Police--IS an Excuse (Part 5: GUTHRIE's Ramifications & Implications)

(Sorry for the delay in getting to Part 5--been busy away and then buried in grading exams.)
So what should one make of the New York court's ruling in Guthrie?

1) What are the ramifications?
Specifically, if a traffic stop based on a police officer's mistake is still valid, then what other police actions are valid after the stop?
2) And the implications?
Specifically, what is the significance of the Court of Appeals' following the Supreme Court's Heien decision and, more than that, relying on that federal constitutional ruling to decide a state search and seizure law issue?

We'll look at "ramifications" in this post; "implications" in the next.

But first, let's recall the Court of Appeals' Gutherie decision.
An officer stopped a car that he saw run a stop sign. Uunbeknownst to the officer, the sign had not been registered and, therefore, was unauthorized. Nevertheless, the officer's stopping the car was upheld as reasonable and, consequently, the evidence obtained from the stop--that the driver was intoxicated--could be used against him.

As already discussed, it is not at all clear that the officer's mistake or ignorance was about law, as opposed to the fact of non-registration. (See part 4.) But the Court of Appeals did state unequivocally that a police officer's reasonable mistake of law was excusable. So unless or until New York's high court issues a contrary ruling in a future case, it's safe to assume that the current law in the state is just what the Court declared in Guthrie.

Now, what about the ramifications? What else is an officer authorized to do once he's makes a stop based on such legal ignorance or mistake?

We've previously seen what the United States Supreme Court allows incident to automobile stops. (See part 3.) As long as the stop is valid--and after Heien, a stop based on a "reasonable" mistake of law by the officer is still valid--the officer may arrest the driver. That's true for even the most minor traffic offense. Then, incident to that arrest, the officer may search the person. He may also search the interior of the automobile. The officer may take the person down to the station for processing. The person may be held in a jail cell during the processing. He may even be strip searched for "security."

Yes, all that when a driver is stopped, regardless of how minor the offense--e.g., a seat-belt violation or failure to pay a traffic fine. (See the discussion of Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 2001 and Florence v. County of Burlington, 2012 in part 3. )

Yes, the Supreme Court takes a bright-line approach--a rather extreme one at that. Even for the most minor, non-violent offense: arrest + search of the person + search of the car + taken to the station + placed in a jail cell + strip-searched. The Court allows all of that without any consideration whatsoever of the actual offense.
(If you find this hard to believe, welcome to the club. But it's absolutely true. Have I already said that the current Supreme Court is dreadful and its search & seizure case law atrocious?)

One last point about the Supreme Court. In these matters, that Court only has the authority to say what the federal Constitution allows or prohibits. Stated otherwise, that Court can only say whether certain police conduct is allowed under the federal Constitution, or is not allowed because it violates federal constitutional search and seizure rights.

So, in allowing all of the intrusions and invasions that we've been discussing, the Supreme Court is simply saying that search & seizure rights under the federal Constitution are not violated (in its view) and, therefore, that states can allow the same if they choose.

Yes, states can allow the same if they choose. States will not be violating the federal Constitution if they allow their officials to engage in that same conduct. They can allow that police conduct under their own law or not, however they choose. The federal Constitution will not be offended either way (in the current Supreme Court's view).

Ahhhhh! So that's why many state high courts render rulings that are completely different from those of the Supreme Court. As long as those courts don't violate the federal Constitution, they are free to do as they choose. And since the Supreme Court says that none of that aforementioned police stop and arrest and search conduct violates the federal Constitution--i.e., it's all allowed--the state high courts can allow it or prohibit it, however they choose, under their own state law.
(I'm repeating myself because I know that this basic principle of our federal system, that the Supreme Court does not necessarily have the last word, is foreign to many--including to many judges.)

All of that is by way of introduction to the fact that New York's high court has very different rules, under its own case law, than the Supreme Court. In fact, state courts as diverse as the high courts of Vermont, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Arkansas, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, etc., etc., etc., have protected search and seizure rights with their own state case law much more so than the Supreme Court does under its federal constitutional case law.

The New York Court of Appeals has often been in the forefront of protecting search & seizure rights as a matter of its own state case law. It has developed a body of search & seizure jurisprudence that in many regards is much more protective than what the current Supreme Court requires as a matter of federal constitutional law. Indeed, many state high courts have adopted search & seizure principles verisimilar to those advanced by the Court of Appeals.

One of those principles--and the one most pertinent to our discussion--is that there must be some reasonable relation between the offense committed and the police intrusions allowed. In short, there must be some actual justification for what the police do.

So, for example, consider a seat belt violation. We've seen that the Supreme Court says that the federal Constitution allows an arrest + search + taking to the station etc., etc., etc. (Again, see the discussion of Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 2001 in part 3. ) The New York Court of Appeals, on the other hand, says "what's the justification for anything other than a ticket?" "Why is an arrest necessary?" "What are the police searching for that has anything to do with the seat belt violation?" "And is a trip to the station necessary?" "Holding in a jail cell?" "Strip search--any relation to the offense?"

This has been a fundamental characteristic of New York Court of Appeals search & seizure case law: What's the connection to the offense? What's the actual justification? There needs to be a justification or the arrest, search, etc. is not permitted.

Read the following selections from a few of the relevant Court of Appeals precedents over the years. I am confident that readers will find these statements of New York case law infinitely more sensible, and much more serious about search & seizure rights than what the current Supreme Court has been rendering:
There is no question, and the entire court agrees, that a police officer is not authorized to conduct a search every time he stops a motorist for speeding or some other ordinary traffic infraction....A motorist who exceeds the speed limit does not thereby indicate any propensity for violence or iniquity....
People v. Marsh (1967), Chief Judge Stanley Fuld
[A] valid arrest for a crime authorizes a warrantless search...when the circumstances give reason to believe that the vehicle or its visible contents may be related to the crime for which the arrest is being made (as possibly containing contraband or as having been used in the commission of the crime) or there is reason to believe that a weapon may be discovered or access to means of escape thwarted
People v. Belton, 1982, Chief Judge Lawrence Cooke
The Supreme Court has interpreted the United States Constitution to permit if not require the drawing of a bright line for reasons of efficiency between permissible and impermissible searches, even though the result is occasionally to forbid a reasonable search or permit an unreasonable one...We have interpreted the New York Constitution to require that the reasonableness of each search or seizure be determined on the basis of the facts and circumstances of the particular case.
People v. Smith, 1983, Judge Bernard Meyer
This court has declined to interpret the State constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures so narrowly [as has the Supreme Court]. Under the State Constitution, an individual's right of privacy in his or her effects dictates that a warrantless search incident to arrest be deemed unreasonable unless justified by the presence of exigent circumstances. When an individual subjected to arrest has a privacy interest in property within his or her immediate control or "grabbable area", this court has identified two interests that may justify the warrantless search of that property incident to a lawful arrest: the safety of the public and the arresting officer; and the protection of evidence rom destruction or concealment.
People v. Gokey, 1983, Chief Judge Lawrence Cooke
 Under United States Supreme Court precedent...incident to the lawful arrest of an occupant of a vehicle, the police may search the entire passenger compartment of a vehicle and containers found therein without a warrant and without any particularized evidentiary basis for doing so...This court has not adopted this bright-line approach...We have noted, instead, that the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant and probable cause requirements of our State Constitution exists only to protect against the danger that an arrestee may gain access to a weapon or may be able to destroy or conceal critical evidence. 
People v. Blasich, 1989, Chief Judge Sol Wachtler
Under the State Constitution, to justify a warrantless search incident to arrest....requires the People to demonstrate the presence of exigent circumstances. We have recognized two interests underlying the exigency requirement: "the safety of the public and the arresting officer; and the protection of evidence from destruction or concealment." Exigency must be affirmatively demonstrated. Accordingly, even a bag "within the immediate control or 'grabbable area' of a suspect at the time of his arrest may not be subjected to a search incident to arrest, unless the circumstances leading to the arrest support a reasonable belief that the suspect may gain possession of a weapon or be able to destroy evidence located in the bag" [quoting Gokey].
People v. Jimenez, 2014, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman
In short, New York Court of Appeals case law requires some actual justification for arresting and searching.
Unlike the current Supreme Court, which construes the federal Constitution as permitting an arrest for any offense, regardless of how minor and non-violent, the Court of Appeals has construed the state's search and seizure rights as requiring some real reason for making an arrest.
Unlike Supreme Court case law, which automatically permits a full search of the person and anything within his reach (including the entire interior of his car) incident to any arrest for any offense whatsoever, Court of Appeals' precedents determine the validity of such searches based on their actual need, i.e., safety and preservation of evidence under the circumstances.
Unlike Supreme Court case law, which allows persons stopped for the most minor, non-violent offenses to be arrested, taken to the police station "for processing," placed in a jail cell during that processing, and even strip-searched "for security," Court of Appeals' precedents require the government to demonstrate that each and every one of those intrusions be justified by some actual safety or evidentiary need.

And therefore? The ramifications of the Court of Appeals Gutherie decision, validating an automobile stop despite the police officer's mistake?

Fortunately, those ramifications are far far less drastic then they would be if the New York court followed current Supreme Court rulings on arrests and searches incident to them.
Fortunately, the Court of Appeals has exercised independent judgment in much of its search & seizure case law.
Fortunately, the Court of Appeals largely restricts arrests and searches based on what is actually justified by some law enforcement need--as opposed to the Supreme Court's automatic, no-questions-asked, bright line approach.

So the consequences of the New York court's ruling in Gutherie, upholding vehicle stops based on reasonable police mistakes, are much more limited then they are under federal law.
The consequences of such a ruling in New York (as well as in other states whose courts have developed their own case law protective of search & seizure rights) are much more limited than they are in those states whose courts have failed to exercise independent judgment--states whose courts, instead, have simply adopted the (yes, atrocious) Supreme Court search & decisions as their own state law.

In the next post, we'll discuss the implications in the Gutherie ruling for independent decision-making at the Court of Appeals. Particularly, we'll explore the majority opinion's considerable reliance on the Heien decision, and its seeming reluctance when deciding matters of state law to "depart" or "deviate" from federal rulings of the Supreme Court.