Supreme Court Cases: 1992-1993 Term

By McCormack, William U. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1993 | Go to article overview
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Supreme Court Cases: 1992-1993 Term


McCormack, William U., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


The 1992-1993 term of the U.S. Supreme Court produced nine decisions of particular importance to law enforcement. In these cases, which will be discussed in brief, the Court established an important and useful rule concerning the development of probable cause during a pat-down search and reaffirmed the law concerning criminal defendants' standing to challenge illegal searches and seizures. The Court also determined that officers who assist citizens in civil proceedings, such as evictions, may be held civilly liable for fourth amendment violations and decided not to bar habeas corpus petitions for alleged Miranda violations.

Other Court decisions in this term overruled a troublesome 1990 Supreme Court double jeopardy decision, loosened the standards for the admissibility of scientific evidence, and held that the eighth amendment's Excessive Fines Clause must be considered in forfeiture actions. The Court also ruled on a case involving a large-scale forfeiture of a pornographer's business assets and decided the legality of bias-motivated penalty enhancement provisions.

Minnesota v. Dickerson, 113 S.Ct. 2130 (1993)

In Dickerson, the Court ruled on the constitutionality of a law enforcement officer's seizure of contraband from a detained suspect who was patted down for weapons. The Court determined that probable cause to seize contraband may be developed through an officer's sense of touch during a lawful pat-down search for weapons.

In the case, police saw the defendant leave a building considered to be a notorious "crack house" and take evasive action upon spotting the police. Officers then stopped and frisked the defendant based on reasonable suspicion that he was carrying drugs and was armed and dangerous.

The officer conducting the pat-down search felt a small lump in the defendant's front pocket and examined it with his fingers by squeezing, sliding, and manipulating it. The officer thought it was a lump of crack cocaine in cellophane and reached into the defendant's pocket to retrieve the package, which turned out to be crack.

The Supreme Court ruled that an officer can develop probable cause for seizing contraband based on the officer's tactile sense. The Court compared the sense of touch to sight by noting that the plain view seizure doctrine allows a seizure when an officer, lawfully present in a location, sees an object reasonably believed to be evidence of a crime. The Court reasoned, by analogy, that when an officer conducting a lawful pat-down search feels an object whose contour or mass makes its identity as contraband immediately apparent, the officer may seize that object if probable cause that the object is contraband exists. However, the Court found the seizure in this particular case illegal because the officer's pat-down search of the defendant went beyond the scope of a lawful search authorized by Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). The Court stated that a Terry pat-down search is limited to a frisk for weapons, and in this case, the officer's continued exploration of the defendant's pocket by squeezing, sliding, and manipulating the lump after having concluded the pocket contained no weapon was unrelated to the purpose for a Terry frisk, and therefore, was illegal. Dickerson is an important case for law enforcement officers because it clarifies that an officer can establish probable cause by the sense of touch during a Terry frisk. Although the seizure was held invalid in this case, officers conducting lawful pat-down searches may, through training, experience, and other surrounding circumstances, establish probable cause that a detainee is carrying contraband, such as drugs.

United States v. Padilla, 113 S.Ct. 1936 (1993)

In Padilla, the Supreme Court examined the question of a criminal defendant's right to challenge a violation of the fourth amendment when the defendant is involved in a conspiracy. The Court held that a defendant charged as a conspirator in a drug smuggling operation does not have standing to challenge an illegal search of a vehicle used to transport drugs based solely on the defendant's supervisory or oversight role in the drug smuggling operation.

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