Supreme Court Continues Trend of Protecting Individual Fourth Amendment Rights

imagesOn February 19, 2013, in Bailey v. United States, the Supreme Court issued an opinion limiting police officer’s authority to detain an individual incident to the execution of a search warrant.  The decision is another example in recent history of the Supreme Court’s refusal to limit the Fourth Amendment.

Facts

While police were preparing to execute a warrant to search a basement apartment, detectives conducting surveillance in an undercover police vehicle located outside the apartment observed two individuals leave the gated area above the apartment, get in a car and drive away.  The detectives waited for the men to leave and then followed the car approximately a mile before stopping it.  Keys to the apartment were found on the petitioner who initially informed police that he resided in the apartment before denying it when informed of the search.  The District Court denied the defendant’s motion to the apartment key and statements he made to the detectives under Michigan v. Summers (1).  The Second Circuit affirmed the decision and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

History

The Fourth Amendment provides the right of every citizen to be secure in their persons against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.  A general rule on the Fourth Amendment is that Fourth Amendment seizures are “reasonable” only if based upon probable cause “to believe that the individual has committed a crime.  In Michigan v. Summers, the Supreme Court established an exception to this general principle and defined an important category of cases in which detention is allowed without probable cause to arrest for a crime.  The rule established in Summers, is that the law permits officers executing a search warrant “to detain the occupants of the premises while a proper search is conducted.”  This rule is unique as it extends farther than other exceptions to the Fourth Amendment in that it does not require law enforcement to have particular suspicion that an individual is involved in criminal activity or poses a specific danger to the officers.

In Summers and the cases that followed, the occupants detained were found within or immediately outside a residence at the moment the police officers executed the search warrant.  However, in the present case petitioner left the apartment before the search began and the police officers waited to detain him until he was almost a mile away.  Thus, the Court must decide whether the reasoning the Court used in Summers can justify detentions beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises being searched.

When Summers was decided, the Court reasoned that there were three important law enforcement interests that justify detaining an occupant who is on the premises during the search warrant’s execution.  (1) The safety of the officers and the need to detain the current occupants so they can search without fear that the occupants will become dangerous or frustrate the search.  (2) The facilitation of the completion of the search, if an occupant is free to move around during the search they may potentially obstruct the search or destroy evidence.  (3) The interest in preventing the flight of the occupants.

Analysis

The Court addressed all three interests established in Summers and applied the facts of the present case to those interests.  The first interest, officer safety, was not at risk because petitioner was away from location of the search and further, he was not even aware that a search was being conducted.  Additionally, if he had returned to the scene and did pose a threat, he would have been able to be lawfully detained because he was on the premises.  Addressing the second interest regarding the facilitation of the search, an individual who is not on the premises when the search is being conducted cannot obstruct a search or destroy evidence.  Finally, in addressing the concern of potential flight, the court said that if law enforcement is able to use flight as an excuse to apprehend occupants without any limitations, a suspect may be able to be seized 10 miles or further away from their house.  The Court then quoted a former Supreme Court case saying “the mere fact that law enforcement may be made more efficient can never by itself justify disregard of the Fourth Amendment.” (2)

The Court also emphasized the fact that the intrusion on personal liberty of a detention away from the premises of one’s home is significantly greater than the intrusion on an individual’s liberty while they are on their premises or inside their home.  When someone is apprehended in their yard or even inside their home, it does not raise the level of the public stigma or indignity associated with the search of the home itself.  However, when one is detained away from their home there is an additional level of intrusiveness.  Even if it is not an arrest it will appear to the public as a full-fledged arrest.  This is another important reason why the decision the Court established in Summers, must be limited and not used by law enforcement as a vehicle to apprehend occupants of a home even if they are not at their home during the search.

(1)    Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981)

(2)    Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 393 (1978)

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