50 Years of Supreme Court Decisions

Article excerpt

In the era before Law and Order was first published, there was almost no law controlling state and municipal law enforcement officer actions. Over the past 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has molded law enforcement from a seat-of-the-pants job to a highly standardized profession.

In the good old days, officers could be put on the street with three rules of conduct: patrol the streets to deter crime; stop any problems you encounter; and arrest those violating the law. Here's your gun, badge, and this is your patrol area. Now go out there and do a good job.

Today, officers can't learn all they need to know to perform all of their tasks as expected in a thousand hours of recruit training. This may be because prior to 1953, there was little deterrence to officers acting outside the law. The exclusionary rule was not applied to municipal and state officers until Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961), and 50 years ago police liability was unheard of. Some of the more significant U.S. Supreme Court cases decided, which effect day-to-day contemporary policing follow.

Stop and Frisk

The Supreme Court has created numerous basic rules for officers to follow when conducting stops- the most frequently occurring police action. Prior to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, (1968), officers could stop and frisk persons whenever they wanted. Terry has withstood the test of time, establishing standards applied today that allow officers to stop and question individuals only when they have reasonable suspicion to believe such persons are, have been or are about to be involved in some unlawful activity. A pat down may occur only when officers have reasonable suspicion such persons are armed and dangerous. The stop and frisk rules were extended to motor vehicles in Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983).

The duration of the stop is limited to the time necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop, Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491 (1983) and U.S. v. Sharpe, 470 U.S. 1568 (1985). The Supreme Court has instructed officers that they can not bring suspects to the station unless the officer has probable cause or the suspect consents, Hayes v. Florida, 470 U.S. 1643 (1985). The Supreme Court alleviated the potential problem with alleged pretextual stops in Whren v. U.S., 517 U.S. 806 (1996) and Arkansas v. Sullivan, 532 U.S. 769 (2001), and most recently the court ruled that officers may not rely on anonymous tips in conducting stops and frisks, Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2002), unless the tip contains predictive information that amounts to reasonable suspicion.

With all of these and other post-Terry cases, one would think there is little more to do. However, there is. For example, the court still needs to provide more definitive rules on actions officers may take when conducting stops. We know officers may order drivers, Pennsylvania v. Mimms. 434 U.S. 106 (1977), and passengers, Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997), out of cars and may draw weapons on suspected armed robbers, U.S. v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 675, (1985), but there is a gap in guidance regarding use of force and other actions that may be taken during stops, Smith v. Colorado, cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1148 (2001).

This term the court also decided not to consider when, if ever, stopping a person based in part on race or ethnicity may amount to an equal protection violation, Brown v. Oneonta, cert. denied, 122 S.Ct. 44 (2001); Bibbs v. City of Lubbock, cert. denied, 532 U.S. 1066 (2001). These and other stop issues will inevitably be addressed in the future.


The court has been far less prolific in addressing arrest issues. Although the framers of the Constitution were concerned with the government's intrusion into the home, it took a while for the Supreme Court to address the issue. Just 39 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the legality of arrest by state and local officers was to be judged by the same constitutional standards as those of the federal government, Ker v. …