Recent Supreme Court Decisions

By Miller, Zachary; Means, Randy | Law & Order, August 2014 | Go to article overview

Recent Supreme Court Decisions


Miller, Zachary, Means, Randy, Law & Order


Cell phones, consent, hot pursuit and deadly force

The most recent term of the United States Supreme Court concluded on June 30 and, until June 25, the term was not especially significant to police law watchers. But with the Court's end-of-term decisions in Riley v. California and its companion case, United States v. Wurie, the Supreme Court took a much anticipated and monumental leap into the realm of 21st century technology, carrying the Fourth Amendment along with it.

While unanimously affirming core Fourth Amendment principles and applying the traditional balancing-of-interests test, the Court laid the groundwork for the manner in which law enforcement officers, moving forward, must view individual privacy interests when seeking digital evidence of a crime. Riley and Wurie are discussed below, along with other constitutional law cases of interest to law enforcement. There were a total of six cases dealing with the Fourth Amendment but no Fifth or Sixth Amendment police law cases.

Hot Foot Pursuit/Qualified Immunity

This case of Stanton v. Sims (Nov. 4, 2013) involved the question of whether an officer in "hot pursuit" can enter private premises-in this case a solidly fenced and gated residential curtilage-to arrest a suspect for a minor but jailable misdemeanor offense, here the failure to obey an officer's order to stop.

A female bystander was injured when the foot pursuit continued onto the curtilage of her fenced property and she was inadvertently struck by her gate when the officer forced it open to continue his pursuit. Her civil lawsuit alleged, among other things, that the officer violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches when he entered the curtilage of her property without a warrant or consent.

In this type of lawsuit, an officer is entitled to immunity from civil liability if he can show that his actions did not violate clearly established constitutional principles-that he was operating in a grey area in which the law was not clearly settled. In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that the officer was indeed entitled to qualified immunity. The law regarding the involved constitutional question was not clearly established at the time of the incident.

And it still isn't. Although the officer in this instance was shielded from civil liability, it is important to understand what the Court did not do in this case. Although the officer won, the Court did not hold that the officer's warrantless entry was lawful. It only held that the law in this area is unsettled and that the officer therefore qualified for immunity from civil liability. Like many other cases in which federal courts grant qualified immunity to a law enforcement officer, law enforcement officers should not necessarily read such a pronouncement as judicial approval for the actions of the officers involved.

As federal law currently stands, it is pretty clear that an officer who is in hot pursuit of a suspect based on probable cause to arrest for a felony offense may continue that pursuit into private premises without a warrant or consent as necessary to complete the arrest process. If, however, the suspect's offense is a misdemeanor, there is a pronounced split of opinions among the federal courts of appeals and among state appeals courts. That is, in many (but not all) jurisdictions the seriousness and/or dangerousness of the suspected offense will be determinative, as in situations applying the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

Until the Supreme Court squarely addresses this issue, officers in hot pursuit situations unfortunately will need to remember the law of their own appeals courts to know what they can and cannot do under the Fourth Amendment. Even if the Supreme Court resolves the federal issue, state appeals courts may interpret state law to be more restrictive than the federal Constitution. The safe choice, at least as long as these uncertainties continue, would be to refrain from entering private premises in hot pursuit unless it involves relatively serious and/or dangerous subject matter-as in exigent circumstances. …

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