LEGAL BRIEFS 34:
Recent Cases Both Narrow and Broaden Search & Seizure Laws
In U.S. v. Washington, decided in November, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that evidence found in Ronald Washington's Nevada hotel room had to be suppressed because police officers violated his 4th Amendment rights in four separate instances, even though he signed a consent form after the officers gained entry into the hotel room.
First, the act of six officers confronting Washington in the hallway with repeated questions about his activities, even after he unequivocally denied any wrongdoing, was deemed an unconstitutional "seizure" or arrest. The reasonable suspicion the officers had to search and question him evaporated after they found no weapons and he denied any wrongdoing; therefore they had to let him go. When an individual does not feel free to go and ignore an officer, they are effectively under arrest.
Second, the officers improperly refused to let the hotel room door be closed while Washington was being questioned in the hallway. Officers can look into a hotel room only if the occupant voluntarily opens the door, if there is a warrant, or if there is probable cause and if one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement is present. Third, the officers improperly entered the hotel room since Washington did not give unequivocal consent for them to enter. Finally, the act of lifting a coat which revealed drugs was deemed a "search" which was not supported by a warrant. That Washington signed a consent form once the officers found the drugs did not correct the previous unconstitutional acts by the officers, therefore an unlicensed handgun later found was suppressed as evidence.
Border searches do not require reasonable suspicion to search contents of vehicles
In September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the government's broad powers to search vehicles and their contents at border crossings. In the case of U.S. v. Cortez-Rocha, involving a border crossing into California, agents cut up a spare tire and found contraband. The justices decided that as long as border searches do not involve "significant damage to, or destruction of, the vehicle," border officers can search a vehicle and anything in it even if there is no reasonable suspicion. If there is reasonable suspicion, then searches which do cause damage or distruction will be upheld. Border searches have long been a general exception to the usual requirements for constitutional searches.
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