Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Court Says Officer Can Make Stop Based on Mistake of Law

Schwinn-steven
Steven D. Schwinn, John Marshall Law School

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday in Heien v. North Carolina that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit an officer from making a stop based on a reasonable mistake of law. We posted an argument preview here and review here.

The ruling puts a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of law enforcement and puts the burden of vague or ambiguous laws, or an officer's reasonable misunderstanding of law, on ordinary citizens.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the 8-justice majority that the "reasonable suspicion" standard required for a stop allows for an officer's mistake of law, no less than it allows for an officer's mistake of fact:

The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground. Whether the facts turn out to be not what was thought, or the law turns out to be not what was thought, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law. There is no reason, under the text of the Fourth Amendment or our precedents, why this same result should be acceptable when reached by way of a reasonable mistake of fact, but not when reached by way of a similarly reasonable mistake of law.

Chief Justice Roberts was careful to emphasize that a mistake must be objectively reasonable--a point emphasized by Justice Kagan (joined by Justice Ginsburg) in concurrence. Still, an officer's reasonable mistake of law is now enough to justify reasonable suspicion for a stop.

Justice Sotomayor filed the lone dissent. She argued that an officer's reasonable mistakes of fact are different from an officer's reasonable mistakes of law: officers are better at judging indeterminate and evolving facts on the street, but the courts are better at the law:

After all, the meaning of the law is  not probabilistic in the same way that factual determinations are. Rather, "the notion that the law is definite and knowable" sits at the foundation of our legal system. And it is courts, not officers, that are in the best position to interpret the laws.

She also argued that the majority's approach is a blow to civil liberties and police-community relations, and that it has "the perverse effect of preventing or delaying the clarification of the law."

December 16, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fourth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Eleventh Circuit Finalizes Rejection of Constitutionality of Florida Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients

In its 54 page opinion today in Lebron v. Sec't Florida Dep't of Children & Families,  a unanimous panel of the Eleventh Circuit held that Florida Statute §414.0652 requiring drug testing of all persons who receive public benefits is unconstitutional.

Recall that a previous panel (of three different judges) had affirmed a district judge's grant of a preliminary injunction against the statute.  The district judge then entered a permanent injunction and this appeal followed.

F8637-01sToday's opinion holds that the statute violates the Fourth Amendment because Florida "failed to meet its burden of establishing a substantial special need to drug test all TANF applicants without any suspicion."  Importantly, the court also held that

the State cannot circumvent constitutional concerns by requiring that applicants consent to a drug test to receive TANF payments. When a government benefit is conditioned on suspicionless drug testing, the voluntariness of the program is properly viewed as a factor baked into the special needs reasonableness analysis, not as an exception to it.

The court rejected Florida's reliance "on unconstitutional conditions cases that arose in different contexts," such as Rust v. Sullivan, stating that  "the consent inquiry is included within the special needs analysis" in the Fourth Amendment context.

The court concludes:

the State cannot use consent of the kind exacted here -- where it is made a condition of receiving government benefits -- to wholly replace the special needs balancing analysis. We respect the State’s overarching and laudable desire to promote work, protect families, and conserve resources. But, above all else, we must enforce the Constitution and the limits it places on government. If we are to give meaning to the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on blanket government searches, we must -- and we do -- hold that § 414.0652 crosses the constitutional line.

While Florida and its governor have been adamant in defending the constitutionality of mandatory drug-testing, the federal courts have been just as adamant that such drug-testing is unconstitutional.  But perhaps Florida will seek certiorari and a chance to validate this policy.

 

December 3, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, Fourth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sixth Circuit Allows Constitutional Challenge of "Hosing" Detainees to Proceed

In its opinion in Williams v. City of Cleveland, a panel of the Sixth Circuit faulted the district judge for over-extending Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington (NJ) to include a challenge to a practice by Cleveland that "compelled pretrial detainees who were being processed into the facility to undress in the presence of other detainees and to have their naked genitals sprayed with delousing solution from a pressurized metal canister."

Recall that the United States Supreme Court in Florence upheld the authority of jail authorities to strip search a person accused of a minor crime without individualized suspicion under the Fourth Amendment.   As we stated when the decision was rendered in April 2012, "Writing for the 5-4 majority, Kennedy's relatively brief opinion could be summed up in a single word: deference."

Yet that deference was not total and today's holding from the Sixth Circuit elaborates on the limits of Florence.  The complaint in Williams was stayed pending resolution of Florence, and after Florence, the plaintiffs sought to amend their complaint to distinguish Florence.  The district judge denied the motion to amend as "futile" because there was no real constitutional issue raised by the manner of the delousing.

725px-Pieter_de_Hooch_018
Pieter de Hooch "A Mother's Duty" (Mother delousing child's hair) circa 1660  via

Reversing, the unanimous panel of the Sixth Circuit noted that Florence "took pains to emphasize that its holding applied only to the blanket policy before it, which required a visual strip search and a compulsory shower with self-applied delousing solution."  This means, according to the court, that the particular method of conducting a search must still be reasonable, and that this reasonableness is weighed against the level of intrusion.

As the panel described the allegations, the "hose treatment"  included the plaintiffs being "ordered to crouch naked on the floor with several strangers in the room while corrections officers" directed a pressurized hose of delousing liquid aimed at their intimate body parts.  The incident also included for one plaintiff being hosed off by another detainee and for another plaintiff, the delousing liquid "penetrating her anus."   For the panel, "simply spraying the detainee with a hose as if she was an object or an animal," is problematical because

it is not obvious that it would be impracticably onerous for the jail to permit self-application of the delousing solution while reserving the “hose treatment” for instances where individual detainees misapply or refuse to properly apply the provided solution.

However, the panel noted that in "the final analysis" "the jail may have had good reasons for conducting these procedures in the particular manner in which it did."  However, "that is a matter for resolution either at trial or on summary judgment, not on the pleadings."

Thus, the case will proceed at the trial level.

November 10, 2014 in Criminal Procedure, Fourth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Court Tests Fourth Amendment Case

The Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in Heien, the case asking whether the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to make a car stop based on a mistake of law. (Our argument preview is here.) The petitioner put the Fourth Amendment--and only the Fourth Amendment--in front of the Court. But based on questions yesterday, the Court seemed to look for ways to wiggle around that framing--and possibly rule on something more, or less.

The petitioner worked mightily at argument and in briefing to distinguish between the underlying Fourth Amendment right and the remedy (exclusion of the evidence). That's because North Carolina automatically excludes evidence if the search violated the Fourth Amendment (without a good-faith exception)--a rule favorable to the petitioner, assuming a Fourth Amendment violation. (The state also interprets its own state constitutional provision in lock-step with the Fourth Amendment.) So the petitioner argued that if the Supreme Court ruled in his favor on the Fourth Amendment (alone), the Court should remand the case for a state-court ruling on the remedy (exclusion of the evidence, under North Carolina law). This, of course, hinged on the Supreme Court ruling on the Fourth Amendment alone.

The Court seemed skeptical. Led by Justice Scalia, questions pressed the petitioner on why it should separate the rights analysis from the remedy, when usually the two go hand-in-hand. Moreover, it wasn't clear why the petitioner should be able to take advantage of a federal Fourth Amendment ruling plus a state exclusionary rule in order to get the evidence excluded. The petitioner had answers (including the fact that the parties only barely briefed the remedy question), but it was clear that this was a sticking point.

On the other hand, some on the Court wondered whether the Court needed to get to the presented Fourth Amendment issue at all. That's because this was a consensual search (after the officer stopped the car). Justice Ginsburg led this line of questioning, but others joined in. Again, the petitioner had answers (fruit of the poisoning tree--the tree being the initial stop based on a mistake of law), but this, too, may be a sticking point.

In all, there were relatively few questions (and few indications one way or the other) on the presented question, whether the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to make a stop based on a mistake of law.

October 7, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fourth Amendment, News, Oral Argument Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Can An Officer Stop a Car Based on a Mistake of Law?

The Supreme Court will consider that question on First Monday, when it hears oral arguments in Heien v. North Carolina. Here's my oral argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases (with permission):

INTRODUCTION

An officer in the Surry County Sheriff’s Department stopped the petitioner’s vehicle along an interstate highway because it had a broken right brake light. (The left brake light worked.) Upon a subsequent consensual search of the vehicle, the officer found cocaine, and the petitioner was charged with trafficking. The petitioner moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officer’s stop violated the Fourth Amendment. In particular, he argued that state law required only one operable brake light (an interpretation that the State does not dispute), that the officer based his stop on the mistaken belief that the petitioner violated state law, and that the officer therefore did not have reasonable suspicion that the petitioner broke the law.

FACTS

Early one morning in April 2009, Nicholas Heien and Maynor Javier Vasquez were traveling on Interstate 77 through Surry County, North Carolina, in Heien’s Ford Escort. Vasquez was driving, and Heien was sleeping in the back seat.

 

Officer Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department was patrolling the interstate. He noticed the car and followed it. As the Escort approached a slower-moving vehicle, Darisse saw that the car’s left brake light functioned properly, but that the car’s right brake light was out. Darisse pulled the car over and told Vasquez and Heien that he stopped them “for a nonfunctioning brake light.”

 

North Carolina law requires all vehicles to have “a stop lamp.” More particularly, the law says that “[n]o person shall . . . operate on the highways of the State any motor vehicle . . . manufactured after December 31, 1955, unless it shall be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle.” (Emphasis added.) No North Carolina appellate court had ever construed this statute to require two working stop lights. But a different statute requires that “[e]very motor vehicle . . . shall have all originally equipped rear lamps . . . in good working order[.]” (Emphasis added.) And yet another provision permits brake lighting systems to be “incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.” (Emphasis added.)

 

Darisse issued Vasquez a warning citation for the malfunctioning brake light. He then told Vasquez to step out of the car and asked him questions about where he was going. At the same time, another officer, who arrived sometime after the initial stop, walked to the back window of the car and asked Heien similar questions. Vasquez and Heien gave different answers. Darisse then asked Vasquez if he would “mind if we made a quick check to make sure you don’t have any drugs or guns or anything like that” in the car. Vasquez told Darisse that he would have to ask Heien, because the car belonged to Heien. Heien consented.

 

The officers then searched Heien’s car and found a plastic sandwich baggie containing cocaine.

 

The State charged Heien with trafficking in cocaine. (The State also charged Vasquez. He pleaded guilty to attempted cocaine trafficking.) Heien filed a motion to suppress the evidence that the officers found in his car, arguing that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. In particular, Heien claimed that Darisse lacked “reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity had been committed or was being committed, or that a motor vehicle traffic offense or infraction had occurred” when Darisse stopped Heien’s car. (If the stop was illegal, then the subsequent search was illegal, and the court would have to suppress the evidence.) Heien also argued that his consent to the search was invalid. The trial court denied these motions.

 

Heien pleaded guilty to two variations of drug trafficking and was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms of ten to twelve months. But he reserved the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress the evidence.

 

On appeal of Heien’s motion to suppress, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, but a sharply divided North Carolina Supreme Court reserved the Court of Appeals (and affirmed the denial of Heien’s motion to suppress). Importantly, the State did not argue to the North Carolina Supreme Court that the state law required more than one working brake light, and the North Carolina Supreme Court did not rule on that question. Instead, the state high court assumed that the law required just one working brake light.

 

The North Carolina Court of Appeals and Supreme Court both later rejected Heien’s challenge to the validity of his consent and upheld his conviction and sentence. This appeal followed.

 

 

CASE ANALYSIS

Under the Fourth Amendment, an officer may stop a vehicle based only on reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. The Supreme Court has held that “reasonable suspicion” includes a reasonable mistake of fact. This means that an officer may stop a vehicle based on reasonable suspicion, even when that reasonable suspicion is, in turn, based on an officer’s mistake of fact. This rule is designed to balance the intrusion on an individual’s privacy in a car stop, on the one hand, and the state’s interest in allowing officers to stop a vehicle when there is a chance of illegal behavior, on the other. In short, the rule gives officers some leeway to make a quick factual judgment, under conditions of uncertainty, that a law has been broken.

 

This case tests whether this rule extends to an officer’s reasonable mistake of law. If so, then an officer could stop a vehicle based on a reasonable mistake of law that a crime has been committed, just as the officer could stop a vehicle based on a reasonable mistake of fact that a crime has been committed.

Heien argues that an officer’s reasonable suspicion must be measured against a correct interpretation (and not a misinterpretation) of the law. He says that the purpose of the reasonable suspicion standard is to constrain the discretion of an officer and to avoid arbitrary stops, and that a stop based on any misinterpretation of the law (including a reasonable misinterpretation) undermines that core purpose. He claims that our tradition supports this—that the common law has long held officers liable for mistakes of law—and that familiar legal precepts support this, too (for example, the precept that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”). He contends that various canons of statutory construction “reinforce the principle that government should not benefit from mistaken interpretations of ambiguous or otherwise confusing criminal laws.”

Heien acknowledges that the Fourth Amendment tolerates stops based on reasonable mistakes of fact. But he says that the reasons for this rule do not carry over to reasonable mistakes of law. In particular, he claims that the Fourth Amendment recognizes that officers often have to make quick factual assessments under conditions of uncertainty, and that the doctrine gives officers the flexibility to make good-faith mistakes of fact. He says that an officer’s legal judgment is different, however, because knowledge of the law does not require ad hoc, case-by-case assessment; instead, it is fixed and determinate and susceptible to ex ante analysis by the courts.

Next, Heien argues next that an officer’s mistake of law is sometimes relevant, but only to the remedy, and not to the underlying Fourth Amendment right. He means that an officer’s mistake of law is relevant in determining whether the evidence obtained should be excluded, or whether an officer enjoys qualified immunity for the Fourth Amendment violation, that is, to questions of remedy for Fourth Amendment violations. But he says that the same mistake of law is not relevant in determining whether the officer violated the underlying Fourth Amendment right—the issue in this case. He says that a long line of Supreme Court cases supports this interpretation, and shoe-horning the mistake-of-law inquiry into the Fourth Amendment question would be difficult to administer, lead to varying results (and thus varying versions of the Fourth Amendment), and undermine our very system of individual rights protection.

Finally, Heien argues that even if the Court considers Darisse’s mistake of law on the question of the underlying right, the Court should still rule that Darisse violated the Fourth Amendment. Heien claims that Darisse’s mistake was not based on his reasonable reliance on assurances from courts or legislatures (as in other cases), but instead on “his own overly aggressive interpretation of the law.” Moreover, Heien contends that other problems could arise if the Court concluded that Darisse did not violate the Fourth Amendment because of his mistake. In particular, Heien says that police departments would be discouraged from educating officers on the law, that they would be discouraged from asking legislatures to clarify ambiguous laws (because that would shrink officer discretion), and that motorists could be subject to stops for nearly any reason—so long as the officer made a reasonable mistake. Heien claims that it is the legislature’s job, not the officers’ job, to determine what traffic laws are necessary to promote safety; but allowing an officer to dodge the Fourth Amendment by making a mistake of law would, in essence, put the law solely in the officer’s hands.

The State argues that reasonable mistakes of law, just like reasonable mistakes of fact, can support an officer’s reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop. The State says that the reason for allowing mistakes of law to support an officer’s reasonable suspicion—to give officers some room, given the often ambiguous situations in which they execute their duties—applies equally to mistakes of law. It also claims that the law has recognized that mistakes of law can be objectively reasonable, and that the Supreme Court has upheld officer actions based on mistakes of law. And it contends that any effort to distinguish between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law would be fruitless, because mistakes of fact and mistakes of law are often difficult to distinguish.

Next, the State argues that an officer’s mistake of law is not only relevant to the question of remedy, but also the question of right. In particular, the State claims that the exclusionary rule doctrine does not limit the consideration of an officer’s mistake of law to the remedy (exclusion of evidence). And it says that under the qualified immunity doctrine, reasonableness for the purpose of officer immunity is different than reasonableness for the purpose of the Fourth Amendment violation itself. Therefore, the State contends, contrary to Heien, that the qualified immunity doctrine says nothing about whether a mistake of law might support the question of the right itself. The State claims that even if an officer’s mistake of law does not support an investigatory stop, the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule would apply, and the evidence would come in. (Note that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule is not part of the Question Presented in the case, and Heien does not argue it.)

Finally, the State argues upholding stops based on reasonable mistakes of law advances the interests underlying the Terry doctrine. In particular, the State says that the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), recognized that officers often had to take “swift action predicated upon on-the-spot observations,” and therefore allowed investigatory stops based on mere reasonable suspicion (and not the higher standard, probable cause). The State claims that those same considerations support the use of an officer’s reasonable mistakes of law in making a stop. The State says that an officer may make a mistake of fact for any number of perfectly reasonable reasons. The State claims that this is a case in point: “The unsettled question of law here involved the interpretation of a statute that had been on the books for more than fifty years. No one had ever challenged the interpretation that all brake lights were required to be in working order.” The State says that there is no reason to believe that Darisse would have received any different advice if he could have asked for an interpretation of law in the field. In other words, the State claims that Darisse’s interpretation of the law was reasonable.

The government, as amicus curiae on the side of the State, argues first that the Fourth Amendment, where the ultimate touchstone is reasonableness, allows an officer to perform a car search when the officer reasonably believes that conduct violates the law, even if the officer’s belief turns out to be mistaken. The government says that this rule properly balances the suspect’s right to liberty and the state’s duty to control crime. The government claims that this only allows an officer to “start the judicial process,” and the courts can sort out the legality of the stop later. The government contends that a different rule would hamper law enforcement by discouraging officers from “starting the judicial process” in the first place.

Next, the government argues that courts since the Founding have held that officers could make a brief seizure when they acted on reasonable interpretations of the law, even when those interpretations turned out to be wrong. The government claims that courts since the Founding have even allowed mistakes of law in determining probable cause (a higher bar than the reasonable suspicion applicable here). The government says that more recent Supreme Court decisions similarly hold that an officer does not violate the Fourth Amendment when the officer acts on a reasonable mistake of law, and that those cases do not distinguish between the remedy question and the rights question, as Heien contends.

The government argues further that the same justifications that allow an officer to stop a vehicle upon a mistake of fact also allow an officer to stop a vehicle upon a mistake of law, that is, that mistakes of law should be treated the same as mistakes of fact for Fourth Amendment purposes. In particular, the government contends that “the strong public interest in bringing suspects into court when criminal conduct is probable but not certain” should justify allowing an officer’s mistakes of law as well as mistakes of fact to support a stop. The government claims that Heien’s attempts at distinguishing between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law are unavailing. It also says that the Court should not draw on the legal maxims or other rules from other areas of the law, as Heien argues, and that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule only reaffirms the fact that reasonable suspicion allows for reasonable mistakes.

Finally, the government argues that Darisse’s stop was supported by reasonable suspicion. The government claims that Darisse’s interpretation of North Carolina law was reasonable—that he reasonably interpreted the statutes to outlaw a broken brake light—and that he therefore had the requisite reasonable suspicion to make the stop.

SIGNIFICANCE

This case will determine who should get the benefit of the doubt—a police officer, or a suspect—with regard to any evidence obtained when an officer makes a reasonable mistake of law leading to a traffic stop. That’s because an officer’s reasonable mistake of law necessarily means that the suspect did not actually engage in illegal activity justifying a stop. If the benefit goes to the suspect, then, the stop was invalid, and any evidence obtained in a subsequent search must be excluded. If the benefit goes to the officer, the stop was valid (even if based on a mistake of law), and the evidence can be used against the suspect.

But this benefit of the doubt could have other serious implications. For example, Heien and amici supporting him claim that giving the benefit of the doubt to the officer will lead to all sorts of public policy problems. These include decreased incentives for officer education; decreased incentives for clarifying uncertain law; increased incentives for stops for lawful conduct (so long as the state can gin up a reasonable post-hoc statutory rationalization for the stop); and even officer credibility in the community. One amicus points out that traffic stops disproportionately affect racial minorities. Another amicus points out that a ruling for the State would mean that police officers would be required to know less about the law than the general public (because, as Heien argues, “ignorance of the law is no excuse” for the general public).

On the other side, the State and its amici, including Wisconsin, eighteen other states, and the District of Columbia, say that giving the benefit of the doubt to a suspect would discourage valid stops and hamper law enforcement. They say that giving the benefit to the officer strikes the right balance between individual privacy and law enforcement. And the government suggests that if there are problems with a stop (for example, when a stop is based on an unreasonable interpretation of the law), the courts can sort them out later.

The case is also important because it will resolve a split in the federal and state courts. According to Heien’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari, the majority of federal courts of appeals and state high courts have concluded that a mistake of law cannot provide the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a traffic stop. The North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling is in the minority.

 

October 3, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fourth Amendment, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Second Circuit Arguments on NSA Spying on C-Span

The Second Circuit heard oral arguments yesterday in a challenge to the NSA program involving mass collection of telephone call details under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.  The full argument was broadcast on C-Span and is available here.  (The embed code wasn't cooperating.)

The case, ACLU v. Clapper, is one of three cases challenging the program now pending in the circuit courts; the other two are Smith v. Obama (in the Ninth Circuit) and Klayman v. Obama (in the D.C. Circuit).  The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a backgrounder here, with links to case materials; the ACLU has a backgrounder on Section 215 here; the ACLU's page on ACLU v. Clapper is here.

Challengers in the cases argue that Section 215 violates the First and Fourth Amendments, but face justiciability questions before the courts will get to the merits.  That's because Section 215 prohibits a telecommunication company subject to a 215 order from telling its customers about it, so without more a customer wouldn't know.  Still, the district courts in Smith and Klayman ruled that the plaintiffs had standing based on the sheer breadth of the program.

September 3, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Unanimous Supreme Court Requires Warrant for Cell Phone Search Incident to Arrest

A unanimous Supreme Court today ruled in Riley v. California that officers must obtain a warrant before searching an arrrestee's cell phone incident to arrest.  The ruling deals a blow to law enforcement, to be sure.  But it only means that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before searching a cell phone, or satisfy some other exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement (like exigent circumstances), before conducting a search of the phone.  In general, this should not be overly difficult, assuming that an officer can meet the requirements for a warrant: an arresting officer need only drop a seized cell phone into a Faraday bag and obtain a warrant for a later search.  Again: the ruling still preserves other exceptions to the warrant requirement, so that officers can search a phone without a warrant if there are exigent circumstances, for example.

The ruling breaks little new ground on Fourth Amendment analysis.  Instead, it applies a familiar framework to a relatively new technology, cell phones.  (The ruling applies to both smart phones and flip phones.)

The Court applied the familiar balancing test, "assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which [the search] intrudes upon an individual's privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests."  Wyoming v. Houghton.  As to government interests, the Court looked to the two recognized interests in a search incident to arrest in Chimel: to remove weapons that threaten officer safety or could be used for escape, and to prevent the destruction of evidence.

The Court said that the government lacked an interest in protecting officer safety or preventing escape, because "a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee's escape."  It said that the government lacked an interest in protecting evidence, because officers can easily protect evidence on a seized cell phone (by turning it off, or putting it in a Faraday bag, to prevent remote wiping, for example).  (The Court said that there was little evidence that destruction of evidence was even a problem.)

On the other side of the balance, the Court recognized the massive storage capacity and vast personal information contained in cell phones, and contained remotely but accessible by cell phones, and said that the search was a significant invasion of privacy, even if diminished in the context of an arrest.

In sum:

On the government interest side, Robinson concluded that the two risks identified in Chimel--harm to officers and destruction of evidence--are present in all custodial arrests.  There are no comparable risks when the search is of digital data.  In addition, Robinson regarded any privacy interests retained by an individual after arrest as significantly diminished by the fact of the arrest itself.  Cell phones, however, place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals.  As search of the information on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the type of brief physical search considered in Robinson.

Justice Alito wrote a concurrence (for himself alone), arguing that the search-incident-to-arrest rule should be based on the government's interest in "the need to obtain probative evidence," and not the two Chimel interests.  He also called on Congress and state legislatures "to assess and respond to to [technological advances] that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future." 

June 25, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Court Releases Memo Outlining Legal Authority for Targeted Killing, Drones

The Second Circuit today released a redacted version of the DOJ/OLC memo outlining the government's legal authority for the use of a drone attack to kill Anwar al-Aulaqi (sometimes spelled al-Awlaki).  We've blogged extensively about this issue, including here, on the earlier released white paper outlining the government's authority to conduct the same attack.

The released version does not include the first 11 pages of the memo, presumably including the information that the government passed on to the OLC about al-Awlaki that formed the basis of the analysis.  It's not clear whether that first 11 pages included other material or analysis.  (The released version starts with "II.")  There are other redactions throughout, especially in the portion analyzing the CIA's authority to conduct drone attacks.

The analysis in the memo differs slightly from the analysis in the earlier white paper, but, because of the redactions, it's not clear how much this matters.  Thus, for example, the analysis released today makes a careful distinction between DoD authority and CIA authority to conduct a targeted drone attack.  (The earlier white paper didn't make this clear distinction.)  But it's not entirely clear why or how that distinction is significant, given that much of the CIA analysis is redacted.  The analysis released today is also more fact specific.  (The earlier white paper didn't so clearly limit itself to the facts of one case.) But the memo today redacts the facts, so we don't know them.

Other than those points, the analysis released today doesn't appear to be importantly different than the earlier white paper.

As we've noted, and as others have noted, the analysis leads to the surprising result that the government may be able to kill someone by drone attack more easily than it may detain them (with due process under Hamdi).  Still, we don't know this for sure, because we don't know precisely what processes the government used in killing al-Awlaki: that detail is redacted from the memo.

The memo starts by outlining the statutory prohibition on foreign murder of a U.S. national--the federal provision that outlaws one U.S. national from killing another overseas.  That provision, 18 U.S.C. 1119(b), says that "[a] person who, being a national of the United States, kills or attempts to kill a national of the United States while such national is outside the United States but within the jurisdiction of another country shall be punished as provided under sections 1111, 1112, and 1113."  Section 1111 penalizes "murder," defined as "the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought."  The memo thus centers on whether al-Aulaqi's killing was "unlawful."

The memo says that the killing was not unlawful, because the prohibition includes the "recognized justification" of "public authority"--that is, the government's ability to kill under its public authority.  As to the Defense Department's use of drones, the memo says that (1) the president had executive war powers authorized by Congress under the AUMF, (2) the AUMF authorized the president to use all necessary force against al-Qaida and associated forces (the OLC said that the AUMF included associated forces in an earlier memo), (3) al-Aulaqi was a member of al-Qaida or associated forces (AQAP) who posed a "continued and imminent threat" to the U.S., and (4) the DoD was acting pursuant to statutory authorization in targeting and killing al-Aulaqi.  Moreover, the memo says that al-Aulaqi's killing comports with the laws of war.  That's because DoD "would carry out its operation as part of the non-international armed conflict between the United States and al-Qaida, and thus that on those facts the operation would comply with international law so long as DoD would conduct it in accord with the applicable laws of war that govern targeting in such a conflict."  The memo said that this operation in Yemen is part of that conflict, even though Yemen is not within the area of that conflict.  Finally, the memo says that the method of killing complies with the laws of war--that is, that the targeted drone attack complies with the principle of distinction, it would minimize civilian casualties, and it would not violate prohibitions on "treachery" and "perfidy" (because those "do not categorically preclude the use of stealth or surprise, nor forbid military attacks on identified, individual soldiers or officers . . . and we are not aware of any other law-of-war grounds precluding the use of such tactics.").

The memo drew the same, or very similar, conclusions as to the CIA's use of a drone strike, but that section was largely redacted.

(The memo also said that another murder-abroad statute similarly did not prohibit the strike, and that the War Crimes Act did not prohibit it, because al-Aulaqi was still an active, fighting beligerent, and an allowable target under the laws of war.)

As to Fourth- and Fifth Amendment protections, the memo says that a high-level decision-maker ("the highest officers in the intelligence community") can make a determination to use lethal force and authorize a strike.  (That's about all it said: this portion of the memo is also highly redacted.)

The memo makes clear that this is all context specific: the "facts" given to OLC that form the basis of its analysis are "sufficient" for the Office to form its conclusions, but the memo declines to say whether those facts are also necessary.  (And we don't know them, in any event, because they're redacted.)

 

June 23, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, Fifth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Oregon District Judge Declares Same-Sex Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

Joining a decided trend which we last discussed here and here, today Oregon District Judge Michael McShane declared unconstitutional the state’s same-sex marriage prohibition in Article 15 of the state constitution. Judge McShane’s 26 page  opinion in Geiger v. Kitzhaber concludes that because “Oregon’s marriage laws discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without a rational relationship to any legitimate government interest, the laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

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voting in 2004 ballot measure defining marriage as man/woman only: red is no; green is yes; dark green is yes by 2/3 or more; via

Judge McShane noted that the state defendants “concede that Oregon's marriage laws banning same-gender marriage are unconstitutional and legally indefensible, but state they are legally obligated to enforce the laws until this court declares the laws unconstitutional,” and thus, the case “presents itself to this court as something akin to a friendly tennis match rather than a contested and robust proceeding between adversaries.”  However, McShane did not find (or analyze) any Article III “case or controversies” issues, or address standing (including defendant standing).

Judge McShane notes that last term’s decision in Windsor v. United States  finding DOMA unconstitutional

may be distinguished from the present case in several respects. Yet, recounting such differences will not detract from the underlying principle shared in common by that case and the one now before me. The principle is one inscribed in the Constitution, and it requires that the state's marriage laws not "degrade or demean" the plaintiffs in violation of their rights to equal protection.

Unlike Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in Windsor, however, Judge McShane’s opinion in Geiger is quite specific regarding the level of scrutiny being applied: rational basis.  McShane rejected two arguments for intermediate scrutiny.  First, he rejected the argument based upon a gender classification, concluding that the “targeted group here is neither males nor females, but homosexual males and homosexual females” and thus the state's marriage laws discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, not gender.  Second, he rejected the applicability of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Labs, reasoning that the panel's decision in SmithKline is not yet a truly final and binding decision given that the mandate has not issued pending en banc review. (Recall that last week, a federal district judge in Idaho found "SmithKline’s examination of Windsor is authoritative and binding").

Judge McShane then engaged in the by now familiar analysis of government interests - - - including protecting traditional marriage and promoting responsible procreation - - - and their relationship to the same-sex marriage prohibition.  Like his fellow judges in recent cases, Judge McShane found rational basis is not satisfied.

And like some of his fellow judges, McShane shared his personal perspective.  McShane's provided his in an extended conclusion:

I am aware that a large number of Oregonians, perhaps even a majority, have religious or moral objections to expanding the definition of civil marriage (and thereby expanding the benefits and rights that accompany marriage) to gay and lesbian families. It was these same objections that led to the passage of Measure 36 in 2004 [the ballot measure defining marriage as only between a man and a woman]. Generations of Americans, my own included, were raised in a world in which homosexuality was believed to be a moral perversion,
a mental disorder, or a mortal sin. I remember that one of the more popular playground games of my childhood was called "smear the queer" and it was played with great zeal and without a moment's thought to today' s political correctness. On a darker level, that same worldview led to an environment of cruelty, violence, and self-loathing. It was but 1~86 when the United States Supreme Court justified, on the basis of a"millennia of moral teaching," the imprisonment of gay men and lesbian women who engaged in consensual sexual acts. Bowers, 478 U.S. at 197 (Burger, C.J., concurring), overruled by Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 578. Even today I am reminded ofthe legacy that we have bequeathed today's generation when my son looks dismissively at the sweater I bought him for Christmas and, with a roll of his eyes, says "dad ... that is so gay."

It is not surprising then that many of us raised with such a world view would wish to protect our beliefs and our families by turning to the ballot box to enshrine in law those traditions we have come to value. But just as the Constitution protects the expression of these moral viewpoints, it equally protects the minority from being diminished by them.

It is at times difficult to see past the shrillness of the debate. Accusations of religious bigotry and banners reading "God Hates Fags" make for a messy democracy and, at times, test the First Amendment resolve of both sides. At the core of the Equal Protection Clause, however, there exists a foundational belief that certain rights should be shielded from the barking crowds; that certain rights are subject to ownership by all and not the stake hold of popular trend or shifting majorities.

My decision will not be the final word on this subject, but on this issue of marriage I am struck more by our similarities than our differences. I believe that if we can look for a moment past gender and sexuality, we can see in these plaintiffs nothing more or less than our own families. Families who we would expect our Constitution to protect, if not exalt, in equal measure. With discernment we see not shadows lurking in closets or the stereotypes of what was once believed; rather, we see families committed to the common purpose of love, devotion, and service to the greater community.

Where will this all lead? I know that many suggest we are going down a slippery slope that will have no moral boundaries. To those who truly harbor such fears, I can only say this: Let us look less to the sky to see what might fall; rather, let us look to each other ... and rise.

 Judge McShane's opinion ends with a exhortation perhaps more befitting religious rhetoric than legal analysis.

 

May 19, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, Family, Fourth Amendment, Interpretation, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Opinion Analysis, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Orientation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Frontline's United States of Secrets

Frontline airs the first of its two-part series United States of Secrets tonight.  The documentary examines NSA secret surveillance programs developed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.  There's a clip at the link above, and another here, Inside the NSA the Day After 9/11.

 

May 13, 2014 in Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Daily Read: Deven Desai on Data Hoarding and Associational Freedom

"The amount of data available to law enforcement creates a type of honey pot—a trap that lures and tempts government to use data without limits."  What should the constitutional limits be?  And what is their source?  In a new article, Constitutional Limits on Surveillance: Associational Freedom in the Age of Data Hoarding, available on ssrn (and forthcoming in Notre Dame Law Review) Law Prof Deven Desai  (pictured) argues that constitutional protections for association - - - rooted in the Fourth Amendment as well as the First - - - is a method for disciplining governmental access to both forward and backward-looking surveillance in our current age of "data hoarding."

Deven_desai-tu-websiteDesai argues:

The mechanisms for information gathering have taken different forms at different times in history, but regardless of the precise method or when the acts occur, we can see the goal: suppression of association. Mail has been read, student speech and political actions watched, library records obtained, membership in the Communist Party scrutinized, a list of individuals to detain in case of a national security emergency created, a fifteen year program to gather information about “the Communist Party, the Ku Klux Klan, antiwar groups, civil rights groups, women’s rights groups, and gay rights groups” created, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King threatened depending on various perceived threats and surveillance programs. These practices now include the FBI’s gathering of publicly available information “directly,” through third parties, or if handed over “voluntarily” by third parties.  The NSA’s recent activities map to the same behaviors that threaten and attack associational freedom. The NSA has targeted online activities of alleged Muslim radicalizers—those who offer troubling speeches—to secure information, such as about viewing pornography online, to discredit or embarrass the speakers. That tactic is not about law enforcement. Just as those in power have gone after the Democratic-Republican Societies, war protestors, civil rights activists, and others questioning the government, the tactic is about intimidation and suppression. One might try and argue that all this activity is only for national security and anti-terror investigations and thus permitted under current laws. But NSA activities have not been cabined to national security interests. The NSA is not allowed to spy on domestic targets. It has done so anyway. The NSA’s “Associational Tracking Program” has collected purely domestic communication information including from and to whom a call is made, the length of the call, and when the call is made, on a daily basis for later analysis by the NSA. This data has come directly from telecommunication providers such as Verizon, which complied with a court order. 165 In addition, the NSA has hacked telecommunication lines to gain access to communications and metadata passing through Google and Yahoo data centers.

[footnotes omitted].

Ultimately, Desai contends that "pervasive surveillance turns us into sheep."  But the First Amendment has not been sufficient to protect against surveillance because a "mypoic" view of the First Amendment as requiring expressive speech misses the associational aspects at stake.  Additionally, the associational aspects of the Fourth Amendment are often neglected, but should be considered "core."

Given the continuing revelations about widespread surveillance, Desai's intervention and suggested reorientation of doctrine is certainly worth a serious read.

April 7, 2014 in Association, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Interpretation, Privacy, Scholarship, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

NSA Documents Database

Need to find a particular document or search for a particular name in the trove of items made available from the National Security Agency?  Or just want to look around?

The ACLU now has a handy database, available here.

520px-Old_Lady_with_Magnifying_Glass_LACMA_51.38.14As the announcement explains:

This tool will be an up-to-date, complete collection of previously secret NSA documents made public since last June. The database is designed to be easily searchable – by title, category, or content – so that the public, researchers, and journalists can readily home in on the information they are looking for.

We have made all of the documents text-searchable to allow users to investigate particular key words or phrases. Alternatively, the filter function allows users to sort based on the type of surveillance involved, the specific legal authorities implicated, the purpose of the surveillance, or the source of the disclosure. For example, you can have the database return all documents that both pertain to "Section 215" and "Internal NSA/DOJ Legal Analysis."

An important tool for scholars and advocates. 


[image via]

 

April 6, 2014 in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, State Secrets, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Disparate Views of the Secret Service: The Court and the Realities?

In the oral arguments last week in Wood v. Moss and the Court's 2012 decision in Reichle v. Howards, the Secret Service was center stage.  Recall that both cases involve qualified immunity for Secret Service agents against constitutional claims and raise the specter that the individual agents acted inappropriately.  And in both cases, there is some valorization of the agents and their difficult task of protecting the President (in Wood) and the Vice-President (in Reichle). 

800px-Robert_Warwick_in_Secret_Service

Arguing for the United States Government in Wood v. Moss, the Deputy Solicitor General expressed the fear that not upholding qualified immunity would lead to a "demoralization of the service leaning in the direction of being overly careful and therefore risking the life of the President" and that allowing discovery is "exactly the nightmare scenario that the Secret Service fears" including "
discovery into what the agents were thinking" and "what the Secret Service's policies were." 

And in Reichle, Justice Ginsburg concurring in the unanimous opinion, discusses the difficult facts in the case as well as deference to the agents' role:

Officers assigned to protect public officials must make singularly swift, on the spot, decisions whether the safety of the person they are guarding is in jeopardy. In performing that protective function, they rightly take into account words spoken to, or in the proximity of, the person whose safety is their charge. Whatever the views of Secret Service Agents Reichle and Doyle on the administration’s policies in Iraq, they were duty bound to take the content of Howards’ statements into account in determining whether he posed an immediate threat to the Vice President’s physical security. Retaliatory animus cannot be inferred from the assessment they made in that regard.

But one wonders how positive views of the Secret Service suffer given recurrent scandals involving the Secret Service.  As the United States Supreme Court was considering Reichle, there was the scandal in Colombia involving more than a dozen agents, but a later Homeland Security report (official synposis here) found that there was not "widespread sexual misconduct."  Most recently, at least one agent assigned to protect the President was reportedly "found drunk and passed out in a hotel hallway."  This latest scandal was reportedly not good news for the Secret Service's first woman director who has "tried to implement reforms."  One former Secret Service agent writes in a WaPo op-ed that the problem is not bad agents but bad leadership." 

But whether attributed to bad leadership or what might be called "bad apples," should these revelations about the bad judgments of secret service agents influence the Court's own judgments?  Doctrines such as qualified immunity and strict pleading requirements that prevent discovery serve to protect Secret Service agents from their "nightmares" (as the Deputy Solicitor General phrased it), but might they also insulate the Secret Service from responsibility for the nightmares they cause others. 

[image via]

April 1, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, News, State Secrets | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Oral Arguments in Wood v. Moss: The Complaint by the Anti-Bush Protestors

At the heart of this case is a very simple complaint: During a campaign stop by then-President Bush in Portland, Oregon, the Secret Service treated anti-Bush protestors differently from pro-Bush demonstrators, relocating the former while allowing the latter to remain. 

But the complaint raises a host of legal issues that ricocheted through the oral arguments {transcript} in Wood v. Moss at the United States Supreme Court today.

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image from later protest in Portland via

The first issue is whether the complaint satisfied Ashcroft v. Iqbal, with Chief Justice Roberts specifically referring to the opinion during the oral argument of Steven Wilker, representing the Respondents, who were the protestors:

In Iqbal, and just quoting here from page 681, the Court goes on to consider the factual allegations in the complaint to determine if they plausibly suggest an entitlement, and they go on to say, but given more likely explanations, they do not plausibly establish this purpose.

Roberts returned to Iqbal, stating that the Government's alternative explanation in its motion to dismiss the complaint "doesn't have to be so compelling.":

It simply has to be more likely, is the quote from Iqbal on 681, and it has to be an obvious alternative explanation. And that's enough, no matter what you've alleged.

There was certainly some concern expressed that without Iqbal, the district judge might have fewer "weapons" available to curb discovery, but there was also not uniform preoccupation with Iqbal, with Justice Breyer posing a hypothetical about discovery and saying "Forget Iqbal for the moment."

Yet another procedural barrier discussed by the Court is the doctrine of qualified immunity, requiring that the constitutional infringement be "clearly established" at the time it occurs in order to hold government agents accountable. The Government's best case in this regard is Reichle v. Howards, which counsel mentioned repeatedly, decided in 2012, which held that Secret Service agents had qualified immunity and rejected the claim of retaliatory arrest for a man at a Dick Cheney shopping mall appearance.

But there seemed to be an "aha" moment for Justice Scalia - - - who had previously accused the attorney for the government, Ian Gershengorn, Deputy Solicitor General, for not sufficiently raising such arguments - - - during Wilker's argument.  Scalia asked " how can it be  clearly established if we have never held that there is a Bivens cause of action for a First Amendment violation? We've never held that, have we? How can you possibly say that the violation here is clearly established."

MR. WILKER: Well, I think it's different to say whether or not there is a remedy for the violation as to whether the violation was clearly established.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Well, okay.

MR. WILKER: The violation was clearly established. Whether or not there is a remedy for that violation under Bivens - - -

JUSTICE SCALIA: That's a good point.

MR. WILKER:  - - - is a different question.

JUSTICE SCALIA: That's a good point.

Yet Scalia might not be convinced that there would actually be a First Amendment violation, given his repeated references to the Fourth Amendment in which motivation should not be considered. 

At several points, the oral argument did focus on the question of viewpoint discrimination under the First Amendment, such as in the Deputy Solicitor's exchange with the Justice Ginsburg:

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Mr. Gershengorn, suppose it's originally set up by the police, the motorcade is coming down, each side has equal access. Then the Secret Service comes along and said: Clear the anti­Bush demonstrators. Suppose that, that ­­ those were the facts. Would there be a valid Bivens claim?

MR. GERSHENGORN: Your Honor, the question would depend on whether there was a valid security rationale. I think in the context of a motorcade ­­

JUSTICE GINSBURG: The rationale is it's more likely that the people who are against the President would be harmful to him than the people who are for him.

Prätorianer
Roman Praetorian Guard via

Yet whether this case will be decided on the First Amendment issues - - - or more properly, whether the Court will decide that the First Amendment issue can be decided by the lower courts in spite of Iqbal and the qualified immunity doctrine - - - is balanced between two concerns expressed in the oral arguments. 

On the one hand, there is a concern for ability of the Secret Service to make security decisions to protect the President without being subject to second-guessing by possible plaintiffs and the courts themselves. 

On the other hand, there is the concern that there might develop a "Praetorian Guard" - - - as Justice Breyer stated - - - and that the trampling of First Amendment rights on the basis of viewpoint might be accepted.

As one of the cases on this Term's heavy First Amendment docket, its importance may be overshadowed, but it should not be underestimated.

March 26, 2014 in First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Interpretation, Oral Argument Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Daily Video: Edward Snowden Speaks

"I took an oath to support the Constitution, and I felt the Constitution was violated on a massive scale," Edward Snowden said in his video conference delivered from his asylum in Russia to the South By Southwest (sxsw) Interactive Festival. 

Here's the video:

 

 Some good analysis at LATimes.  [to be updated]

March 10, 2014 in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 7, 2014

FISC Rejects Government Motion to Keep Telephony Records More Than Five Years

Robson

Professor Ruthann Robson, City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law

In an opinion today Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Reggie Walton denied the Government's motion to amend a previous order requiring  "telephony metadata produced in response to the Court’s orders be destroyed within five years."  The Government argued that it should be allowed to retain data beyond five years because destruction of the metadata “could be inconsistent with the Government’s preservation obligations in connection with civil litigation pending against it.”

In denying the motion without prejudice, the judge reasoned that FISA’s minimization requirements are not superseded by the common-law duty to preserve evidence.  The Government's presumed "fear that the judges presiding over the six pending civil matters may sanction the government at some point in the future for destroying BR [telephony] metadata that is more than five years old," was, the judge stated, "far-fetched."  The judge's dismissal was without prejudice to a subsequent motion "providing additional facts or legal analysis, or seeking a modified amendment to the existing minimization procedures."

Taking the motion to dismiss at face value, it seems that the Government was actually worried that it might be sanctioned in civil trials if it destroyed evidence after five years and wanted a ruling from the court.

Telephone_Line_Time_is_Precious_Art.IWMPST4037

A more nefarious interpretation would be that the Government used the excuse of civil trials to attempt to extend the time it could keep telephony metadata, but was thwarted by the court.

And an even more nefarious interpretation would be that the Government wanted the "cover" of a court opinion to destroy telephony metadata that might be beneficial to plaintiffs in pending civil matters.

And an even more nefarious interpretation?   There are sure to be more speculations.

[image via]

March 7, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, Fourth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Court to Determine Scope of Immunity in Police Chase

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow, Tuesday, in Plumhoff v. Rickard, the case testing the scope of qualified immunity for police officers who were sued for damages arising out of a police chase.  Here's a portion of my preview of the oral arguments, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

FACTS

 Around midnight on July 18, 2004, Officer Joseph Forthman of the West Memphis police force stopped a Honda Accord driven by Donald Rickard after noticing that the car had a broken headlight. Rickard had one passenger, Kelly Allen, who sat in the front passenger seat.

 Officer Forthman asked Rickard for his license and registration; he also asked about a large indentation in the windshield “roughly the size of a head or a basketball.” Allen told Officer Frothman that the indentation resulted from the car hitting a curb. Officer Forthman then asked Rickard if he had been drinking alcohol and twice ordered him out of the vehicle.

Rickard did not comply with Officer Forthman’s instruction. Instead, he sped away on Highway I-40 toward the Arkansas-Tennessee border. Officer Forthman reported over his radio that a “runner” fled a traffic stop; he got back in his vehicle and proceeded to pursue Rickard. Officer Forthman was quickly joined by fellow West Memphis Officer Vance Plumhoff, who became the lead officer in the pursuit. Other West Memphis Officers Jimmy Evans, Lance Ellis, Troy Galtelli, and John Gardner, each in separate vehicles, also joined the pursuit.

The ensuing high-speed chase lasted nearly five minutes. Many of the details were captured by video cameras mounted on three of the police vehicles; many of the statements by officers came over the radio, or were recorded, or both.

During the chase, Rickard swerved in and out of traffic and rammed at least one other vehicle. Officer Plumhoff stated that “he just rammed me,” “he is trying to ram another car,” and “[w]e do have aggravated assault charges on him.”

Rickard led the officers over the Mississippi River from Arkansas into Memphis, Tennessee, where he exited the highway onto Alabama Avenue. As he made a quick turn onto Danny Thomas Boulevard, his car hit a police vehicle and spun around in a parking lot. Rickard then collided head-on with Officer Plumhoff’s vehicle. (It is not clear whether this was intentional).

Some of the officers exited their vehicles and surrounded Rickard’s car. Rickard backed up. Officer Evans hit the butt of his gun against the window of Rickard’s vehicle. As other officers approached, Rickard spun his wheels and moved slightly forward into Officer Gardner’s vehicle.

Officer Plumhoff approached Rickard’s vehicle close to the passenger side and fired three shots at Rickard. Rickard reversed his vehicle in a 180-degree arc onto Jackson Avenue, forcing an officer to step aside to avoid being hit. Rickard began to drive away from the officers. Officer Gardner then fired ten shots into Rickard’s vehicle, first from the passenger side and then from the rear as the vehicle moved further away. Officer Galtelli also fired two shots into the vehicle.

Rickard lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a building. Rickard died from multiple gunshot wounds; Allen died from the combined effect of a single gunshot wound to the head and the crash.

Rickard’s survivors brought a civil rights lawsuit in federal district court against the six officers involved in the chase. They alleged, among other things, that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment. The officers moved for summary judgment or dismissal arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court denied qualified immunity, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.

CASE ANALYSIS

Qualified immunity shields government officials performing discretionary functions from suits for alleged constitutional violations, unless their actions violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982). The doctrine is designed to give government officials some breathing room to do their jobs by limiting the threat of liability, and to ensure that capable individuals are not deterred from entering government service for fear of liability.

A plaintiff can defeat a claim of qualified immunity by pleading and ultimately proving that (1) the defendant-official violated a statutory or constitutional right and (2) the right was “clearly established” at the time of the challenged conduct. In determining whether a right was “clearly established,” a court must first define the right at the appropriate level of specificity. (That is, the court must define the right at a particularized level, not a general one, because at a general enough level every right is “clearly established.”) Once the court defines the right, the court must ask whether a reasonable official would have known that his or her behavior violates that right.

In arguing over the application of these rules, the parties rely principally on two cases. In the first, more recent one, Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), the Supreme Court held that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he rammed a fleeing vehicle from behind in order to stop a chase. The officer’s maneuver caused the suspect to lose control of the fleeing vehicle and crash, resulting in serious injuries to the suspect. But the Court held that the officer’s action was objectively reasonably in light of the grave danger that the fleeing driver posed to both the police and bystanders. The Court ruled that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment, and that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity from suit.

In the second, earlier case, Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), the Court held that a state statute that authorized police to use deadly force to stop an apparently unarmed, non-dangerous suspect who was fleeing on foot violated the Fourth Amendment. But the Court went on to say that “it is not constitutionally unreasonable” for an officer to use deadly force to prevent a suspect that poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, from escaping.

The parties frame their arguments against this background.

The officers argue first that the Sixth Circuit erred in applying the second prong of the qualified immunity test. In particular, they claim that the Sixth Circuit concluded only “that the officers’ conduct was reasonable as a matter of law”—a conclusion that either conflated the two prongs of the test, or ignored the second prong entirely. In either event, they say, the lower court never discussed whether their use of force violated clearly established law at the time of the incident, in July 2004. Indeed, the officers contend that the Sixth Circuit only compared their conduct in 2004 to the facts of Scott v. Harris, a case that came down in 2007. They say that they could not have known about Scott v. Harris when they acted, and that therefore the court misused that case to determine whether the law was clearly established and that their actions were unreasonable at the time.

The officers argue next (on the second prong) that the law in 2004 did not clearly establish that their use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable in violation of the Fourth Amendment. They say that the Supreme Court ruled in December 2004, just five months after the incident here, that there was no clear answer to the question whether it is acceptable “to shoot a disturbed felon, set on avoiding capture through vehicular flight, when persons in the immediate area are at risk from that flight.” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194 (2004). The officers claim that the threat posed by Rickard was even greater than the threat posed by the fleeing felon in Brosseau, so, if anything, their use of deadly force was more justified. They also contend that neither the law in the Sixth Circuit (where the shootings occurred) nor the law in the Eighth Circuit (where the officers worked) clearly established that their actions were unconstitutional at the time. On the contrary, they claim, the law in those circuits in July 2004 gave the officers “every reason to believe their conduct was objectively reasonable.”

Finally, the officers argue (on the first prong) that their use of deadly force was an objectively reasonable response to Rickard’s behavior. They contend that the facts here are similar to the facts in Scott v. Harris. They say that their force was objectively reasonable and warranted by Tennessee v. Garner (stating that “[w]here the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.”). And they claim that their use of deadly force to terminate a high-speed chase served the public policy goal, recognized by the Supreme Court, in avoiding threats to innocent bystanders.

The federal government, weighing in on the side of the officers, makes substantially similar arguments. In particular, the government puts this fine point on its critique of the Sixth Circuit’s ruling: “The words ‘clearly established’ do not appear in its opinion, and the court did not undertake the basic inquiries required by this Court’s decisions: defining the right at the appropriate level of specificity, canvassing pertinent authority, and ultimately determining whether a reasonable official would have understood clearly that her conduct violated the Constitution at the time it occurred.” Like the officers, the government argues that the Sixth Circuit erred in its analysis. If the Court should reach the question whether the officers are entitled to qualified immunity, the government also says that they are, because the right was not clearly established at the time of the incident. (The government says that “[f]ramed at the appropriate level of specificity, the question here is whether in 2004 it was clearly established that the police may not use deadly force to prevent a misdemeanant and his passenger from resuming a dangerous, high-speed chase on public thoroughfares after the driver had recklessly operated the vehicle both during the chase and in a close-quarters encounter with police.”) The government urges the Court not to rule on the first prong, the constitutional question, because it is unnecessary, “novel,” and “highly factbound.”

Rickard’s survivors, called “Rickard” here, argue first that the Sixth Circuit lacked appellate jurisdiction over the case. In particular, Rickard says that the officers’ appeal to the Sixth Circuit was grounded primarily in their dispute with the district court’s factual conclusions. Rickard claims that this kind of ruling—“a determination that genuine issues of fact create disputes which preclude the defense of qualified immunity”—does not give rise to appellate jurisdiction.

Next, Rickard argues that additional facts, or “factual disputes,” in the case show that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. In short, Rickard takes issue with the officers’ characterization of nearly every significant event, from Rickard’s car-rammings to the context of the officers’ final shots at Rickard’s car. Rickard says that the police videos and the officers’ testimonies undermine the officers’ versions of these events, and that he did not pose the kind of serious threat to the officers that they claim. As a result, Rickard says that their use of deadly force violated the Fourth Amendment as it was clearly established at the time.

Third, Rickard argues (on the first prong) that the Sixth Circuit properly held that the officers’ use of force was not objectively reasonable. Rickard claims again that the facts are disputed, and that viewed correctly they show that Rickard did not pose a threat to the officers that warranted their use of deadly force. Rickard also contends that the Court should not create a blanket rule authorizing police officers to shoot a suspect in a vehicular chase in order to prevent the suspect’s escape. Rickard says that such a rule would extend Scott v. Harris, which involved only car-ramming by the police, not shooting. Rickard also says that such a rule would “bootstrap” an otherwise non-dangerous situation (presumably, the original misdemeanor stop) into a violent felony (the high-speed chase) for the purpose of determining a suspect’s threat to the police. Rickard says that this situation was not as dangerous as the officers have claimed, and that their use of deadly force—“15 total shots at a vehicle containing an unarmed man and woman, the majority of them as the car went past and away from the police”—was excessive.

Finally, Rickard argues (on the second prong) that the officers violated clearly established Fourth Amendment law. Rickard claims that Garner established that it was “constitutionally unreasonable to shoot an unarmed, nondangerous fleeing suspect dead in order to prevent his escape.” Rickard says that under Garner the officers’ use of deadly force in this case was unreasonable. Rickard contends that it does not matter that Garner is not precisely on point: contrary to the officers’ position, the Supreme Court has never required a case exactly on point to determine whether the law is clearly established.

On both prongs, Rickard emphasizes that the State of Tennessee indicted Officers Plumhoff, Gardner, and Galtelli for reckless homicide in the death of Allen. Rickard claims that the indictment underscores their excessive use of force.

SIGNIFICANCE

The questions presented give the Court several ways to resolve the case. The first question presented would allow the Court to determine only whether the Sixth Circuit erred in its qualified immunity analysis, to correct that error (or not), and to remand the case (or not) for further proceedings. In particular, this case gives the Court an opportunity to clarify the second prong (when a right is “clearly established” at the time of an officer’s action) in the wake of the Sixth Circuit’s somewhat confusing approach. (As the officers and the government argue, the Sixth Circuit seems to address only the first prong. If it addresses the second prong, its approach seems incomplete.) As the government explains, this approach, “defin[es] the right at the appropriate level of specificity, canvass[es] pertinent authority, and ultimately determin[es] whether a reasonable official would have understood clearly that her conduct violated the Constitution at the time it occurred.” If the Court only answers the first Question Presented, this is as far as the Court needs to go. If so, the Court would likely remand the case for a proper qualified immunity analysis. (The Court could simply affirm the Sixth Circuit on this first issue, but that seems unlikely, given the Sixth Circuit’s somewhat confusing and apparently incomplete analysis.)

If the Court reaches the second question presented, it could determine for itself whether the officers are entitled to qualified immunity. If the Court reaches this question, then it could decide that the officers are immune on the second prong alone (as the officers and the government urge) or on the second or first prong (thus ruling on the merits of the Fourth Amendment—something that the government urges against). The officers probably have the better of this case, given the state of the law in 2004 (on the second prong) and the state of the law now (on the first). But the Court could conclude that the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity, because Rickard can establish both prongs.

The potential wildcard in the case is the facts. If the Court rules on the second question presented, qualified immunity (and not just on the first question presented, whether the Sixth Circuit erred), at least part of its analysis will almost certainly turn on the facts. It is unusual for the Court to review the facts of a case, but here the Court can only judge the reasonableness of the officers’ actions by taking a look at the facts for itself. (For example, the Court’s review of the videotapes in Scott v. Harris was key to its ruling there, creating what Justice Scalia (for the majority) called “a wrinkle” in the case.) We do not know how the justices will interpret the facts, but we do know that the facts are likely to come into play if the Court gets to the second question presented. And we know that this case seems to be factually similar to Scott, although Rickard vigorously contests that. (Scott was a ruling on the Fourth Amendment itself, the first prong of the qualified immunity test, so the facts were central to the Court’s ruling. But the facts are probably important on the second prong, too.)

Finally, if the Court reaches the second question presented, the case may build on Scott. In particular, it may say whether the officer’s reasonable action in Scott (ramming his car into the suspect’s car to stop a chase) extends to firing shots to stop a chase. But while Scott seems highly relevant, remember that because it came after the officers’ actions here, it will likely only play a central role if the Court rules on the first prong of the qualified immunity test, the underlying Fourth Amendment question.

 

March 3, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cohabitant Can Consent to Search Over Objection of Absent Occupant

The Supreme Court ruled today that a cohabitant of an apartment can validly consent to a search of the apartment, even over the objections of an absent co-occupant.  The ruling in Fernandez v. California means that police can search an apartment (or home), without a warrant, based on the permission of one occupant, even when another occupant objects, so long as the other occupant isn't around.

The case arose when police knocked on an apartment door after hearing screams come from the apartment.  Roxanne Rojas answered; she appeared to be battered and bleeding.  Police asked Rojas to step out of the apartment so that they could conduct a protective sweep.  Fernandez came to the door and objected.

Police suspected that Fernandez assaulted Rojas and arrested him.  They then identified him as the perpetrator in an earlier robbery and took him to the station.

An officer later returned to the apartment, obtained oral permission from Rojas to search it, searched it, and found items linking Fernandez to the robbery. 

Fernandez moved to suppress the items, arguing that he did not give consent to search.  He relied on Georgia v. Randolph (2006), which held that the consent of one occupant is insufficient to allow a warrantless search if another occupant is present and objects to the search.

The Court declined to extend Randolph to this case, where Fernandez was absent.  Justice Alito wrote for the majority:

Our opinion in Randolph took great pains to emphasize that its holding was limited to situations in which the objecting occupant is physically present.  We therefore refuse to extend Randolph to the very different situation in this case, where consent was provided by an abused woman well after her male partner had been removed from the apartment they shared.

Justices Scalia and Thomas concurred, both taking issue with the Randolph rule itself, and Justice Scalia trying to shoehorn in a property law analysis.

Justice Ginsburg, writing for herself and Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, dissented:

Instead of adhering to the warrant requirement, today's decision tells the police that they may dodge it, nevermind ample time to secure the approval of a neutral magistrate.  Suppressing the warrant requirement, the Court shrinks to petite size our holding in [Randolph] that "a physically present inhabitant's express refusal of consent to a police search [of his home] is dispositive as to him, regardless of the consent of a fellow occupant."

February 25, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fourth Amendment, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Third Circuit on Pennsylvania's Funeral Director Law: Mostly Constitutional

Largely reversing a district judge's opinion that had found various provisions of Pennyslvania's Funeral Director Law unconstitutional on various grounds, the Third Circuit opinion in Heffner v. Murphy upholds the law except for its restriction on the use of trade names as violative of the First Amendment.

One key to the panel's decision is that it surmised that the district judge's conclusions regarding the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's Funeral Director Law (FDL), enacted in 1952, "stem from a view that certain provisions of the FDL are antiquated in light of how funeral homes now operate."  But, the Third Circuit stated, that is not a "constitutional flaw."

Anna_Ancher_-_A_Funeral_-_Google_Art_Project
"A Funeral" by Anna Archer via

The challenged statutory provisions included ones that:

(1) permit warrantless inspections of funeral establishments by the Board;
(2) limit the number of establishments in which a funeral director may possess an ownership interest;
(3) restrict the capacity of unlicensed individuals and certain entities to hold ownership interests in a funeral establishment;
(4) restrict the number of funeral establishments in which a funeral director may practice his or her profession;
(5) require every funeral establishment to have a licensed full-time supervisor;
(6) require funeral establishments to have a “preparation room”;
(7) prohibit the service of food in a funeral establishment;
(8) prohibit the use of trade names by funeral homes;
(9) govern the trusting of monies advanced pursuant to pre-need contracts for merchandise; and
(10) prohibit the payment of commissions to agents or employees.

The constitutional provisions invoked - - - and found valid by the district judge - - - included the Fourth Amendment, the "dormant" commerce clause, substantive due process, the contract clause, and the First Amendment, with some provisions argued as violating more than one constitutional requirement.

In affirming the district judge's finding that the trade names prohibition violated the First Amendment, the Third Circuit applied the established four part test from Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission regarding commercial speech and found:

The restrictions on commercial speech here are so flawed that they cannot withstand First Amendment scrutiny. Indeed, the District Court correctly identified the pivotal problem concerning the FDL’s proscription at Central Hudson’s third step: by allowing funeral homes to operate under predecessors’ names, the State remains exposed to many of the same threats that it purports to remedy through its ban on the use of trade names.  A funeral director operating a home that has been established in the community, and known under his or her predecessor’s name, does not rely on his or her own personal reputation to attract business; rather, the predecessor’s name and reputation is determinative. Nor does a funeral home operating under a former owner’s name provide transparency or insight into changes in staffing that the Board insists is the legitimate interest that the State’s regulation seeks to further.

 [citation omitted]

ConLawProfs looking for a good review or even a possible exam question, might well take a look at the case.  It also seems that the Pennsylvania legislature might well take a look at its statutory scheme, which though largely constitutional, does seem outdated.

February 20, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Dormant Commerce Clause, Due Process (Substantive), First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Calls for Congressional Action on Surveillance: "The Day We Fight Back"

Labeled "The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance," February 11, 2014 has been designated as a day to "make calls and drive emails to lawmakers" regarding two pieces of legislation.

The activists support the USA Freedom Act, S 1599 ("Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection, and Online Monitoring Act).  The Electronic Frontier Foundation supports the bill, but considers it a "floor not a ceiling" and discusses its limitations including not covering persons outside the US, encryption, and standing issues.  The ACLU legislative counsel "strongly supports" the legislation, noting that while it is not perfect, it is an "important first step," and highlights the fact that one of the sponsors in the House of Representatives is Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who "was the lead author of the Patriot Act and now is the chair of the House's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Crime."

The activists urge the rejection of The FISA Improvements Act S 1631, most closely associated with the bill's sponsor, Dianne Feinstein.

Daywefightback

While focused on legislative action, many of the materials and arguments ground themselves in the First and Fourth Amendments.  Organizers state that the day commemorates Aaron Swartz, who also invoked constitutional norms.

February 11, 2014 in Congressional Authority, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, Executive Authority, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, State Secrets, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)