Monday, May 4, 2015

Ignorance of the Law--by the Police--IS an Excuse (Part 3: More on HEIEN & Ramifications)

In the last post, we discussed the Supreme Court's Heien decision and began to examine its ramifications. Recall that the Court approved, as constitutionally valid, a police officer's stop of an automobile for a faulty brake light. However, the Court did so, not on the basis of the legitimate safety concern presented and the need for repair but, rather, by excusing the officer's ignorance of the state law that happened to require only one light.

As we noted, the consequences of that ruling are far reaching. It provides another opening for the expansive exceptions that today's Supreme Court has adopted to basic search and seizure protections. Let's not mince words--this is about the drastic intrusions and invasions that this Court permits for even the most minor offenses.

Actually, especially after the Heien decision, the state of current constitutional law is even worse than that. Now, all those intrusions and invasions are permitted for what a police officer mistakenly believes is one of those minor offenses.

To dispel the understandable skepticism that some readers may have about whether the Supreme Court's decisions could really be as bad as I am making them sound --just like the skepticism my students have before they read the case law--let's look at a couple of those decisions. This should erase any doubt about just how atrocious current Supreme Court jurisprudence is.

Let's start with Atwater v. City of Lago Vista (2001). It's now settled constitutional precedent relied on in subsequent decisions. Here are the facts:
A Mom is driving with her young children in the car.
They aren't wearing their seat belts.
Mom's car is pulled over by a police officer.
She's arrested for the seat belt violation.
She's handcuffed.
She's taken to the police station.
She's ordered to remove her shoes and other items and to empty her pockets.
She's placed in a jail cell during "processing" of the seat belt violation.
Not kidding. For a seat belt violation.
Lest there be any doubt, here are the facts as stated in the Court's own syllabus:
Petitioner Atwater drove her truck in Lago Vista, Texas, with her small children in the front seat. None of them was wearing a seatbelt. Respondent Turek, then a Lago Vista policeman, observed the seatbelt violations, pulled Atwater over, verbally berated her, handcuffed her, placed her in his squad car, and drove her to the local police station, where she was made to remove her shoes, jewelry, and eyeglasses, and empty her pockets. Officers took her "mug shot" and placed her, alone, in a jail cell for about an hour, after which she was taken before a magistrate and released on bond.
The Supreme Court held that all of this was perfectly fine. The 5-4 majority ruled that none of this violated the Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

It makes no difference, according to this Court, that an offense--like a seat belt violation--is extremely minor. It makes no difference to this Court that there isn't any real necessity [Or any reason at all!] to arrest and handcuff and search the offender--like the Mom--and hold her in a jail cell.

No, according to the modern Supreme Court, an arrest, a search incident to that arrest, and a trip to the police station for "processing," including being locked in a jail cell, are all perfectly permissible whenever the police have a "reasonable" ground--i.e., "probable cause"--to believe that someone has committed even the most minor offense.

Again, lest there be any doubt, here are the Court's own words:
If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender....[The police officer] was accordingly authorized (not required, but authorized) to make a custodial arrest without balancing costs and benefits or determining whether or not Atwater's arrest was in some sense necessary....The arrest and booking were inconvenient and embarrassing to Atwater, but not so extraordinary as to violate the Fourth Amendment.
[Anyone interested should read the dissenting opinion of Justice O'Connor who clearly found the Court's ruling to be as outrageous as I do.]

OK, readers might now ask, what else is there? It can't get too much worse than that seat belt case, can it?
Oh yes it can, and yes it did.

Try this one, Florence v. County of Burlington (2012). In that case, the Court upheld the strip search of an automobile passenger who was arrested for a non-violent, non-contraband related, past minor offense.

Actually--maybe you're expecting this--the Court's decision was even worse than that. The Court approved a second separate strip search of that passenger as well. And, oh, by the way, it just so happens he wasn't guilty at all. The police officer arrested him on a mistake!

Here are the facts:
A car was stopped for a traffic infraction.
When the passenger identified himself, he was arrested for failing to pay a previous traffic fine.
The officer was relying on a warrant in the state's computer system.
The passenger insisted that he had paid the fine and presented documents proving he had.
Nevertheless, he was handcuffed, placed in the patrol car, and taken to the local jail.
There, the passenger was made to strip naked for a full inspection, including that of his genitals.
He was held in that jail for six days.
He was then taken to the county correctional facility.
He was once again made to strip naked for a full, even more intrusive inspection.
The next day, he was finally brought before a judge.
The judge ordered the innocent man's immediate release.
Any search and seizure rights problem under those facts? Well, this Supreme Court didn't see any.

The Florence case was decided eleven years after Atwater. The Supreme Court simply took the next step.  Florence was the ultimate extension of the search & seizure case law that the Court has been building for the last 30 or so years. Relying heavily on Atwater and its precursors, the Court did what those precedents suggested it would.
Minor offense? No matter. An arrest and full search are permitted.
Nothing at all to suggest violence or weapons or contraband or any evidence of such an offense or any other? No matter. An arrest and full search are still permitted.
A ticket or warning would suffice? No matter. An arrest and full search and taking to the station for "processing" are permitted.
Police officer actually mistaken about an offense--even the most minor one--having been committed? No matter. An arrest and full search and taken to the station for "processing" are constitutionally valid and the mistake is excused.
Again, police officer mistaken. No matter--all of the foregoing, plus a strip search or two in the interest of "jail security" is permitted.
Here's how the Court "explained" itself in Florence:
One of the central principles in Atwater applies with equal force here. Officers who interact with those suspected of violating the law have an “essential interest in readily administrable rules.” [Citing to Atwater, as well as to Belton (1981), one of the Court's first decisions down this road.] The officials in charge of the jails in this case urge the Court to reject any complicated constitutional scheme requiring them to conduct less thorough inspections of some detainees based on their behavior, suspected offense, criminal history, and other factors. They offer significant reasons why the Constitution must not prevent them from conducting the same search on any suspected offender who will be admitted to the general population in their facilities....Even assuming all the facts in favor of petitioner [the passenger], the search procedures at the Burlington County Detention Center and the Essex County Correctional Facility struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions.
Hmm. Arrest, jail, and a strip search or two for failing to pay a traffic fine--which he actually did pay!

So getting back to Heien. That decision, validating a stop made by an officer based on his ignorance or mistake of the brake light law, certainly flows from Florence--and numerous other precedents of the modern Court--where it has excused "reasonable" or "good-faith" mistakes by the police. Indeed, the Court has done so even in cases where the so-called "reasonable" or "good-faith" mistakes resulted in searches or seizures that the Court itself acknowledged were unconstitutional. (I.e., the so-called "good-faith" exception to the exclusionary rule. But delving into that is another matter.)

So Heien, the brake light decision, is no surprise at all when viewed in the context of Atwater, Florence, and the decisions upon which they were built. But whatever one might think about the decision in Heien itself--i.e., excusing a "reasonable" police mistake about the brake light law, considered in the abstract--the ramifications are what is truly worrisome.

That's because Heien triggers those drastic intrusions and invasions that the Supreme Court automatically allows whenever the police "reasonably" believe that someone has committed an offense. Regardless of how minor the offense. And regardless of whether any such offense was actually committed. In short, a "reasonable" belief = arrest = search = jail for processing.

To conclude, let me repeat what I wrote in the last post about why the Heien decision, taken together with the truly atrocious previous decisions of the modern Supreme Court, contravenes any serious regard for the Constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures:
A stop for violating the law--and again, now, after the Heien decisioneven a stop for something a police office mistakenly believes violates the law--allows the officer to do all of the following:
  • arrest the driver [or passenger], even for a very minor traffic offense the officer believes the driver [or passenger] committed
  • search the driver [or passenger] incident to that arrest, even without a warrant or any actual need to do so
  • also search any so-called "grabbable" area, which the Court deems to include the entire passenger compartment of the car--again, without a warrant or any actual need to do so (unless the driver [or passenger] is shackled in the back of the patrol car and, thus, metaphysically incapable of reaching into his car)
  • handcuff the driver [or passenger] and take him to the police station "for processing"
  • place the driver [or passenger] in a jail cell during the "processing"
  • subject the driver [or passenger] to a strip search--yes, a strip search, including a close inspection of his genitals--if he's placed in a jail cell with others during that "processing"
All that, even for a very minor traffic offense that an officer believes a driver or passenger has committed. And even if the officer is wrong and no offense was actually ever committed.
I feel compelled to say it one more time: atrocious!

In the next post we'll take a look at the New York Court of Appeals decision last month in People v. Guthrie. It's a somewhat similar case and decision, but the ramifications are far far different.