It often is said that the future is determined by the past. During its 1996-1997 term, the United States Supreme Court determined the future for law enforcement, to some extent, in eight of its decisions. The cases involved the issues of 1) due process rights of officers who are immediately suspended without pay after being arrested; 2) extended incarceration for violent sexual offenders; 3) government liability for unconstitutional actions of employees; 4) blanket exceptions for the newly-recognized constitutionally based knock and announce rule; 5) overtime wage benefits for police supervisors; 6) ordering passengers out of vehicles during traffic stops; 7) floating buffer zones when restricting abortion protests; and 8) obtaining a valid consent to search. This article summarizes these cases.
Gilbert v. Homar, 117 S.Ct. 1807 (1997)
When a police officer at a Pennsylvania state institution was arrested and charged with a drug felony, officials of the state institution immediately suspended the officer without pay. The officer subsequently filed suit against his employer claiming that the failure to provide him with notice and an opportunity to be heard before suspending him without pay violated his 14th Amendment due process rights. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania entered judgment for the employer but the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the judgment and held that, based on the due process clause, a state employee is entitled to a pre-suspension hearing before being suspended without pay. The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the latter judgment.
The court noted that due process is flexible and calls for such procedural protections as the particular situation demands. In that regard, the state has a significant interest in immediately suspending employees who occupy positions of great public trust and high public visibility, such as police officers, when felony charges are filed against them. The court said the government does not have to give an employee charged with a felony a paid leave at the taxpayer's expense.
The purpose of a presuspension hearing is to determine whether there are reasonable grounds to believe the charges against the employee are true and support the proposed action. The arrest and formal charges imposed upon an officer demonstrate that the suspension is not arbitrary; the arrest itself assures that the decision to suspend an officer is not baseless or unwarranted.
Kansas v. Hendricks, 117 S.Ct. 2072 (1997)
In 1994, after serving 10 years for taking "indecent liberties" with two 13-year-old boys, the defendant walked out of prison only to be committed almost immediately to a Kansas correctional mental health facility. Under a 1994 state law called the Sexually Violent Predator Act, a judge ordered the defendant confined indefinitely after ruling that his "mental abnormality" made him likely to attack again. The defendant had told authorities that only death could stop him from molesting children. Despite this declaration and the fact that he had been previously convicted five times for the same type of offense, he challenged the constitutionality of the act.
The Supreme Court upheld the Kansas act to the extent it allows for the involuntary commitment of people who have been convicted of a sexually violent crime and have already served their sentence but, because of a mental abnormality or personality disorder, are likely to continue that same violent conduct. The Court concluded that the Kansas act did not violate the double jeopardy, ex post facto, or the due process clauses of the Constitution.
The Court decided that double jeopardy, which prohibits the imposition of more than one punishment for a single crime, does not come into play because, in this instance, the offender is not being punished twice for the same crime. The Kansas act is neither retribution for the crime the offender was convicted of, nor a basis for general deterrence, which are the primary objectives of criminal punishment.
The Court also found there was no violation of the Constitution's ex post facto clause that forbids the enactment of new laws that extend punishment for past crimes. Under this act, however, the continued confinement cannot be considered "punishment" because punishment, in constitutional terms, arises from criminal proceedings, not civil ones.
The Kansas act involves a civil, rather than a criminal, proceeding that requires a separate finding of dangerousness either to one's self or to others as a prerequisite to involuntary confinement. Dangerousness alone, however, is not sufficient since the added confinement is limited to a narrow class of sexual predators who are unable to control their vicious impulses. A judge or jury must determine beyond a reasonable doubt that a person meets this test. Moreover, anyone committed to a mental health facility must be reevaluated annually.
The Court recognized the authority of the state, through civil commitment, to confine violent sex offenders until they are no longer a threat based on less than a determination of the more prevalent and stringent standard, "mental illness." In that regard, Justice Thomas wrote, "Although freedom from physical restraint has always been at the core of the liberty protected by the due process clause from arbitrary governmental action, that liberty interest is not absolute."
Board of County Com'rs of Bryan Cty, Okl v. Brown, 117 S.Ct. 1382 (1997)
In 1991, a driver in a pickup truck fled from a police checkpoint and led police on a high-speed chase. A deputy sheriff consequently stopped the truck and allegedly twice ordered the driver's wife in the passenger seat from the vehicle. When she did not respond, the deputy implemented an arm bar technique whereby he grabbed her arm at the wrist and elbow, extracted her from the vehicle, and threw her to the ground. The impact caused severe injury to her knees, requiring four separate knee surgeries and the likelihood of a total knee replacement in the future.
The wife sued the county and the deputy under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 alleging that the deputy violated her constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure and false arrest. A jury awarded her $800,000 after finding the deputy used excessive force. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled the county liable as a result of the sheriff' s decision to hire the deputy. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the latter decision.
Despite a highly questionable hiring decision, the Court concluded the county was not liable under Section 1983 for the unconstitutional conduct of the deputy. The facts of the hiring indicate that the sheriff is the deputy's great-uncle and that the deputy had a record of nine moving violations, driving while intoxicated, driving with a suspended license, conviction for possession of a false identification, and a misdemeanor assault conviction based on a fight when the deputy was a college student.
The Court noted municipalities cannot, under Section 1983, be held liable for the actions of their employees under a respondent superior theory. To prevent municipal liability for a hiring decision from collapsing into respondent superior liability, a court carefully must test the link between a policy maker's inadequate decision and the particular injury alleged. The plaintiff must show that the hiring decision reflects deliberate indifference to the risk that a violation of a particular constitutional right will follow the decision.
In ruling the county was not liable under Section 1983, the Court ruled that municipal deliberate indifference for a hiring decision can occur only when the applicant's actual background makes it plainly obvious to the hiring official that the use of excessive force by the applicant will follow. Here, except for the college fight, the deficiencies in the deputy's background did not make it "plainly obvious" to the sheriff that, if hired, the deputy would use excessive force in violation of the constitution.
Richards v. Wisconsin, 117 S.Ct. 1416 (1997)
In 1991, police broke down the door of a Madison, Wisconsin, motel room and arrested the defendant for possession of 63 packets of cocaine. Though the police were executing a valid search warrant, the defendant claimed that the officers failed to identify themselves properly, thereby violating the now constitutionally based knock and announce rule. The defendant sought to suppress the evidence as the fruit of an unlawful search.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court reasoned that when the police execute a search warrant in a drug case, "there is a reasonable cause to believe that the drugs will be destroyed, evidence lost, and the occupants of the residence will be armed." Accordingly, the Wisconsin court created a blanket exception to the knock and announce rule, allowing officers to dispense with advance notice when dealing with suspected drug dealers.
The United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed the decision, holding that law enforcement offficials must still justify no-knock searches on a case-by-case basis. The Court found the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision unconstitutional to the extent it granted police a blanket exception to carry out unannounced entries when executing search warrants in all felony drug investigations.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the protection against unreasonable searches "would be meaningless" if a blanket exception "were allowed for each category of investigation that included a considerable ... risk of danger to officers or destruction of evidence" and that "the asserted governmental interests in preserving evidence and maintaining safety may not outweigh the individual privacy interests intruded upon by a no-knock entry." While declining to adopt the blanket exception concept, the Court nonetheless upheld the defendant's conviction by finding that the no-knock entry used by police in gaining access to his motel room was justified by the facts of the particular case.
Auer v. Robbins, 117 S.Ct. 905 (1997)
Auer involved the Court's interpretation of the proper limits to overtime wage benefits under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). St. Louis police sergeants and a lieutenant sued for overtime pay under FLSA after the city concluded that the sergeants were "bona fide executive, administrative, or professional" employees exempted from overtime pay requirements. Under the Secretary of Labor's regulations, this exemption applies to employees paid a specified minimum amount on a "salary basis," which requires that the "compensation ... not be subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of the work performed." The sergeants argued that they did not meet this requirement because, under the terms of their police department manual, their compensation theoretically could be reduced for a variety of disciplinary infractions related to the "quality or quantity" of their work--although this was not the department's general practice.
The Court confronted the issue to determine whether, under the salary basis test, an employee's pay is subject to disciplinary or other deductions whenever there exists a theoretical possibility of such deductions, or rather only when there is something more to suggest that the employee is actually vulnerable to having pay reduced. The sergeants contended that because a single sergeant in their department actually had been subjected to a disciplinary deduction in pay, they were nonexempt under the FLSA.
However, the Secretary of Labor interpreted the "salary basis" test to deny exempt status only if there is either an actual practice of making such deductions or an employment policy that creates a "significant likelihood" of such deductions. The fact that a single sergeant had been disciplined with a salary deduction was not enough to reach this threshold of significant likelihood. Moreover, the Court found that the sergeants' manual did not effectively communicate that pay deductions are an anticipated form of punishment for employees in the sergeants' category. Because no clear inference could be drawn as to the likelihood of a sanction being applied to the sergeants, the Court concluded that neither an actual practice nor a significant likelihood of such deductions supported the sergeants' claims for overtime wage benefits under FLSA.
Maryland v. Wilson, 117 S.Ct. 882 (1997)
In Wilson, the Court ruled that a police officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop. The Court stated that as a practical matter, passengers are already stopped by virtue of the vehicle stop itself, so that the additional intrusion upon them is minimal.
The defendant in this case was a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over for speeding and lacking a license tag. The Maryland trooper who made the stop noticed that the defendant appeared extremely nervous and ordered him out of the car. When the defendant exited the car, a quantity of crack cocaine fell to the ground. The defendant was then arrested and charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
The lower courts granted the defendant's motion to suppress the charges by concluding that a previous Supreme Court ruling that allowed officers to order the driver out of a vehicle did not apply to passengers. The Supreme Court reversed and extended its earlier decision to include passengers.
The Court first noted the dangers that occur in a number of traffic stops. The presence of more than one occupant in the vehicle increases the possible sources of harm to the officer, and the Court recognized this danger to law enforcement. When passengers are outside the car, they are denied access to any possible weapons that may be concealed in the interior of the vehicle. Additionally, the Court noted that the possibility of a violent encounter during a traffic stop arises from the fact that evidence of a more serious crime might be uncovered during the stop. Consequently, the motivation of a passenger to employ violence to prevent arrest in such instances may be as great as that of the driver.
Since the likelihood that a traffic stop may give rise to either violence or the destruction of evidence increases when there are passengers in the vehicle, the Court held that the officer may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop. The decision in Wilson is a victory for law enforcement officers because of the greater amount of discretion given to the officers to ensure their safety.
Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, 117 S.Ct. 885 (1997)
Schenck dealt with the conflicting rights of a woman having an abortion and of protestors exercising their freedom of speech. The case arose after health care providers in upstate New York brought a complaint against 50 individuals and 3 organizations involved in the pro-life movement. The complaint alleged that the defendants had consistently engaged in illegal blockades and other illegal conduct at facilities in the Western District of New York where abortions were performed.
As a result of the complaint, the District Court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) that required the defendants to stop physically blockading the clinics, physically abusing or harassing anyone entering or leaving the clinics, and demonstrating within 15 feet of any person entering or leaving the clinics. Defendants, however, continued to engage in protests that the District Court viewed as "constructive blockades" in violation of the TRO. As a result of these violations, the District Court issued an injunction that more broadly banned "demonstrating within 15 feet from either side or edge of, or in front of, doorways or doorway entrances, parking lot entrances, driveways and driveway entrances of such facilities (fixed buffer zones)," or "within 15 feet of any person or vehicle seeking access to or leaving such facilities (floating buffer zones)." The defendants then challenged the injunction on First Amendment grounds.
The Supreme Court held that the injunction's floating buffer zones requiring protestors to stay 15 feet from people entering and leaving clinics violated the First Amendment by burdening more speech than necessary to serve relevant governmental interests. These floating buffer zones were deemed to restrict speech of those protestors who simply lined the sidewalks to chant, shout, or hold signs peacefully. The Court also noted that trying to enforce such "floating zones" would be extremely difficult and subject to wide discrepancies.
However, the Court upheld the legality of the fixed buffer zones, which required protestors to remain 15 feet from clinic doorways, driveways, and driveway entrances. These fixed zones are more practical to enforce and more effectively balance the necessity of ensuring access to such clinics and the right to freedom of speech.
Ohio v. Robinette, 117 S.Ct. 417 (1996)
Robinette reexamines the question of what constitutes a valid consent to search under the Fourth Amendment. The case arose on an Ohio interstate when the defendant was pulled over for a speeding violation. The driver was issued a verbal warning after a computer check revealed he had no previous violations. After issuing the warning, the deputy inquired whether the defendant was carrying illegal contraband and subsequently asked permission to search the car. The defendant consented and the deputy discovered a small amount of marijuana and a pill that was later determined to be methamphetamine. The defendant was convicted of possession of a controlled substance, but this conviction was overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court on the grounds that when the deputy returned to the car after running a license check and decided not to issue a ticket, any further detention was unlawful.
The Supreme Court reversed the Ohio Supreme Court's decision and reaffirmed that "the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness," measured by examining the totality of the circumstances. Because of the fact-specific nature of the deputy's inquiry, the Court rejected the Ohio Supreme Court's bright-line rule that "any attempt at consensual interrogation must be preceded by the phrase `at this time you are free to go' or by words of similar import." Instead, the Court ruled that knowledge on the part of the defendant to refuse consent is but one factor because it "would be thoroughly impractical to impose on the normal consent search the detailed requirement of an effective warning."…