People's Police Report
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LEGAL BRIEFS: US Supreme Court Strengthens Some
Four recent cases heard before the U.S. Supreme Court showed that our country still has some hope to protect individual rights, while at the same time some of those rights are being sharply curbed.
• Limiting Warrantless Car Searches •
In April, the Supreme Court sharply limited the power of police to search a suspect's car after making an arrest. The court ruled that police may perform a warrantless search of a vehicle only when the suspect could reach for a weapon or try to destroy evidence, or when it is "reasonable to believe" there is evidence in the car supporting the crime at hand.
The Court stated that the prior rule, in place for nearly 30 years, which allowed the warrantless search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle as a regular part of arresting a suspect, was a misreading of the court's decision in New York v. Belton in 1981. Surprisingly, conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined with Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the opinion.
The decision (Arizona v. Gant) overturned a prison sentence for Rodney Gant for possession of cocaine. Police found the drug in a search of his car after he was arrested for driving with a suspended license and he sat handcuffed away from his car (Washington Post, April 22).
• Upholding Fourth Amendment in Strip Search Case •
In June, the Court ruled that the strip search of a 13-year-old girl who was suspected of concealing prescription ibuprofen violated the 4th Amendment's protection against unlawful searches (Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding). The court declared the search unreasonable based on the nature of the drugs in question and the absence of specific evidence that contraband would be found on her.
The Court's ruling left open the door that such searches would be lawful in other instances if more dangerous drugs were involved and/or there was specific evidence that the student was carrying illegal drugs (Flex Your Rights, June 25).
• Lessening Restrictions on Interrogation of Suspects •
In a 5-4 ruling in May, the Court overturned a 1986 case that prevented police from interrogating a suspect in custody if the defendant's lawyer was not present, even if one was requested but not yet appointed, or if the defendant talked to the police without a lawyer. The ruling will make it easier for police and prosecutors to interrogate suspects. Importantly, police will still have to respect the decision by defendants who inform them that they do not wish to talk without a lawyer present.
The Obama administration had asked the court to overturn the 1986 Michigan v. Jackson decision, "disappointing civil rights and civil liberties groups." Eleven states had also urged that the case be overruled.
The ruling was in the case of Jesse Jay Montejo, who was found guilty in 2005 of murder that occurred in 2002. Police took him to help them find the murder weapon, but didn't inform his public defender. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court to determine if any of Montejo's other court-provided protections (e.g., Miranda rights) were violated (Associated Press, May 26).
• Rejecting Inmates' Right to DNA Tests •
In June, the Court ruled that prisoners have no Constitutional right to DNA testing that might prove their innocence. The case involved the conviction of William G. Osborne in 1994 of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a prostitute in Anchorage, Alaska. Rudimentary DNA testing on a condom, requested by the defendant, had excluded two other suspects, but it included Osborne as a possible suspect. Osborne's lawyer decided not to pursue more sophisticated DNA testing, fearing it may further incriminate her client. After his conviction, Osborne sued state officials in federal court seeking access to the DNA evidence his lawyer declined to pursue.
Forty-six states have laws that allow prisoners to gain access to DNA evidence; only Alaska, Alabama, Massachusetts and Oklahoma do not. However, Alabama recently enacted a law limited to death row inmates. In light of the state statutes, the Supreme Court concluded that this issue is best handled by the states and is not a federal right protected by the Constitution (NY Times, June 19).
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