Friday, September 24, 2010

SCOTUS Fourth Amendment interpretations ignore history, reasonableness, to undermine rights

Recently I quipped that I considered celebration of the Fourth Amendment "rather like wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, commemorating something that's dead and anachronistic, however laudable or memorable for those of a certain age who could still recall when it was relevant." Clearly I'm not the only one who thinks the bar on unreasonable searches and seizures been inappropriately and unnecessarily downgraded.

Via CrimProf Blog, I discover that Prof. Arnold Loewy of Texas Tech has published this essay on the Supreme Court's failure to accurately interpret history when applying the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable arrests, searches and seizures without a warrant - particularly the historical context within which the Founding Fathers first articulated the principle. The abstract to his talk declares:
In this article, Professor Loewy introduces the Fourth Amendment topics debated in the 2010 Texas Tech Criminal Law Symposium. Part I of this article begins with a critical overview of the Supreme Court’s use of history in resolving Fourth Amendment questions. Part II analyzes the values that the Fourth Amendment protects, emphasizing the concept of “reasonableness.” Part III evaluates the use of the exclusionary rule to enforce Fourth Amendment values. Professor Loewy concludes by recognizing his article’s overall unfavorable appraisal of the Supreme Court and inviting the symposium’s other speakers to share their opinions.
Here's a notable excerpt from Loewy's talk:
Frankly, I would rate the Supreme Court’s use of history as spotty and inconsistent. Let’s compare, for example, Watson v. United States and Tennessee v. Garner. In Watson, the Court examined the history of the right to arrest without a warrant for a felony which the police officer has probable cause to believe was committed by the arrestee. The Court concluded correctly that at common law arrests for a previously committed felony without a warrant were permitted. Substantially, but not exclusively, because of this history, the Court upheld the right to make a warrantless arrest for a previously-committed felony.

So far so good, but there is one major question that the Court did not ask, despite the urging of Justice Marshall’s concurrence: That question is whether the concept of felony meant the same today as it did at common law when the “no need for a warrant” rule developed. The answer seems to be pretty clearly “no.” At common law, all felonies were both violent and capital. Consequently when a police officer saw a felon at large, it was likely a violent individual, who, if he escaped, would escape the hangman.

Watson, on the other hand, was a non-violent credit card defrauder, who in modern times, is a felon. Well, does history demand that this type of felon be treated the same way as the violent felons for which the common law did not require a warrant? My answer would be either “no,” or at least “not necessarily.” Surely the common law rule calling for the arrest of violent, capital felons tells us little about whether the same rule applies to non-violent defrauders, such as Watson.
Loewy also finds unreasonable the Supreme Court's ruling in a Texas case, Atwater vs. City of Lago Vista, which held that police can arrest people for offenses where the punishment is only a monetary fine - in this case a seat belt violation. (The Texas Legislature in 2001 passed legislation that would have trumped the SCOTUS ruling for Texas, but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it.) Writes Loewy:
The operative word in ... the Fourth Amendment ... is “reasonable.” Indeed, in case after case, the Court has emphasized that the overarching principle of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness. Most of the time when the Court cites “reasonableness” as the overarching principle, it does so to uphold a search; e.g. There is no need for a warrant here because the search comports with the overarching principle of reasonableness. Without regard to the correctness of those decisions, one would have thought that the same principle (if indeed it is a principle) would have applied in Atwater. But it did not. The Court conceded that as applied to Atwater herself, the arrest was clearly unreasonable. As the Court so starkly put it: “Atwater’s claim to live free of pointless indignity and confinement clearly outweighs anything the City can raise against it specific to her case.”

So, one might have thought that the finding of individual unreasonableness would have ended the case, but it did not. Rather, the Court continued: “But we have traditionally recognized that a responsible Fourth Amendment balance is not well served by standards requiring sensitive, case-by-case determinations of government need, lest every discretionary judgment in the field be converted into an occasion for constitutional review.”

Yet just five years earlier, in Ohio v. Robinette, the Court had said: “We have long held that the ‘touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness.’ Reasonableness in turn is measured in objective terms by examining the totality of the circumstances. In applying this test we have consistently eschewed bright-line rules, instead emphasizing the fact specific nature of the inquiry.”

I suppose that a cynic could say that it all depends on whose ox is gored. If the police win with a bright-line rule (as in Atwater) then bright-line rules are good. But if a citizen wins by employing a bright-line rule (as in Robinette) that is bad. I am inclined to favor flexibility (so that Atwater would have won, and frankly so would Robinette, if flexibility had been applied properly). But, however one might resolve that question, we can surely expect more consistency (and more reasonableness) from the Court than we saw in Atwater.


rodsmith said...

Or you could say that like most other politicians. The boys and girls on the supreme court are talking out of BOTH sides of their faces.

Jonathan Edelstein said...

"At common law, all felonies were both violent and capital."

Well, no. Larceny of goods over a certain value was a common-law felony and was neither necessarily nor usually violent.

Anonymous said...

Glad you're back. Really missed your blogs.

Anonymous said...

In Watson, the offense was committed in the presence and view of the arresting officer where in Garner a burglary suspect was fleeing from officers who had not witnessed a crime.

In Garner, deadly force was used and the question that had to be resolved here was whether the police, when pursuing a fleeing suspect, can use deadly force only to prevent escape if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.

Garner was not armed, posed no threat and was shot in the back of the head while climbing a fence.

Two totally different circumstances.