U S Supreme Court Update

By Scuro, Joseph E., Jr. | Law & Order, October 2004 | Go to article overview

U S Supreme Court Update


Scuro, Joseph E., Jr., Law & Order


Periodically, the United States Supreme Court will devote an entire term towards addressing a significant number of cases that uphold, clarify, or sometimes even appears to make new law with regard to practical consequences and implications as they impact constitutional law.

In addition to continuing its more than two decade trend of consistently issuing numerous opinions of importance to law enforcement executives, state, local, and federal agencies, and law enforcement personnel, the 2002-2003 term of the Supreme Court issued opinions that addressed a wide spectrum of legal issues, state statutes, and contemporary issues in a variety of areas.

While each Supreme Court term traditionally results in decisions that address the laws of arrest, evidentiary procedures and rules, search and seizure scenarios, and civil liability issues and consequences, the 2002-2003 United States Supreme Court term rendered precedent-setting decisions in other law enforcement areas of criminal and civil law.

Major rulings from this recently completed Supreme Court term included cases addressing state sodomy laws, cross burning statutes and the First Amendment implications therein, anti-pornography filters on library internet terminals, "three strikes laws," mandatory sex offenders registration (or "Megan's Laws" as they are more commonly known), and the involuntary administration of medication to render a criminal defendant as competent to stand trial.

In addition to several cases, interpreting civil rights civil liability under 42 USC 1983, the Supreme Court also addressed such legal issues as copyright extensions, tradenames, state attempts to compel the mandatory reduction of prescription drug prices for the indigent and uninsured, and the legality of race-based admissions affirmative action policies by a public entity.

The two affirmative action entry level admissions policies cases decided by the Supreme Court are of great importance and impact in the establishment of law enforcement agency policies in recruitment, selection, training, promotion, special assignment, transfers, and other human resource issues related to sworn and civilian personnel.

Both cases will require a careful review by law enforcement executives of existing policies as they relate to this very sensitive issue. What is particularly significant about the majority of decisions rendered by the 2002-2003 Supreme Court term is that a number of the majority opinions by the Court appeared to be against the previously developed legal philosophy of the "Rhenquist Court."

Accurate or not, the present Supreme Court has been portrayed as a constrained, strict constructionist Court in its review of Constitutional issues and questions, creating a reputation with legal scholars and those who follow the Supreme Court closely that it is extremely conservative in rendering its decisions.

In thirteen decisions by the Supreme Court in the 2002-2003 term, the cases were decided by the narrowest margin of voting justices: 5-4. Although this apparently new, moderate philosophy is one that should be monitored by law enforcement executives as a barometer in their development, review, and implementation of policies, procedures, and general orders, the cases decided in the recent term have a more immediate impact and effect on law enforcement operations and other official activities.

In Virginia v. Hicks, 73 Cr.L. 331 (6-18-03), the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a municipal housing authority's policy of prosecuting nonresidents for trespass, even when no prior warning had been provided. The Supreme Court as having a legitimate, rational purpose upheld the policy, which was enacted for the purpose of controlling illegal drug trafficking and other criminal activity. They claimed it was not in violation of any alleged legitimate, rational purpose, and not in violation of any alleged First Amendment rights despite the discretion given the housing project's manager as to determine the criteria or cause for the exclusion from that property.

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