Supreme Court Cases 2008-2009 Term

Article excerpt

In the most recent term, the U.S. Supreme Court decided several cases of interest to the law enforcement community. A number of them addressed fundamental principles of criminal procedure, including significant rulings relating to the search of a vehicle incident to arrest; the taking of statements following the appearance of an individual before a judge; and the Sixth Amendment Right to Confrontation Clause as it relates to the use of certificates of forensic examination in lieu of actual testimony in a criminal trial. Also of interest to the law enforcement community is a decision relating to a claim of reverse discrimination in the promotional process. This article includes a synopsis of these cases in addition to a summary of cases of interest to law enforcement that the Supreme Court has agreed to consider next term.




Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009)

In this case, the Supreme Court clarified that the Fourth Amendment does not permit broad authority to search a motor vehicle incident to arrest simply because the arrestee is at the site of the arrest, which has been the general assumption since the Court's holding in United States v. Belton. (1) Rather, the Court in Gant clarified that the need to search the interior of the vehicle incident to arrest is limited to situations furthering the rationales behind this warrantless search authority--to protect officer safety and to prevent the destruction of evidence. The Supreme Court held that these rationales can be furthered by limiting the authority to search the vehicle to situations where "the arrestee is within the reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or if it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of the arrest." (2)

Under the facts in this case, Gant was not within reaching distance of the vehicle at the time of the search (he was handcuffed and locked inside the police car) and there was no reason to believe the car contained evidence of the crime for which he was arrested (driving with a suspended license). Therefore, the search of his car violated the Fourth Amendment, and the contraband discovered during the search was suppressed. (3)


Montejo v. Louisiana, 129 S. Ct. 2079 (2009)

This case addressed whether the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was invoked by a defendant at a state proceeding when the judge ordered the appointment of counsel for the defendant on murder charges, even though the defendant stood mute at the hearing and made no such request or assertion. After the defendant's court appearance, police approached him and advised him of his Miranda rights, which he waived. He agreed to accompany police on a drive to locate the murder weapon. During this trip, he wrote a letter of apology to the victim's family. Defense counsel sought to suppress the letter, arguing that the police could not initiate the interrogation of the defendant once he invoked his Sixth Amendment right to counsel, which the attorney argued occurred at the initial appearance. Under established Supreme Court precedent set forth in Michigan v. Jackson, (4) if the Sixth Amendment right to counsel was invoked at the initial court hearing, police could not initiate subsequent interrogation of the defendant on the murder charges in the absence of the defendant's attorney, and any confession derived from this interrogation would be subject to suppression. The trial judge permitted the government to introduce the letter, a ruling later affirmed by the Louisiana Supreme Court on the grounds that because the defendant did not say anything at his court appearance, he did not invoke his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. (5) The defendant appealed this ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that because counsel was appointed, the right was invoked, and Michigan v. …