Supreme Court Cases: 1996-1997 Term

By Bulzomi, Michael J.; Dunn, Robert M. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Cases: 1996-1997 Term

Bulzomi, Michael J., Dunn, Robert M., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

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. …

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