On the first Monday in October the national police commission opens its annual meetings. Others know it as the opening of the session of the Supreme Court of the United States. In our richly decentralized institution of municipal policing SCOTUS serves as the most influential national policymaker.
With Mapp v. Ohio and the Exclusionary Rule in the early 1960’s policing and the Court entered the era of the “rights revolution” in which the Court regularly makes rulings that deeply influence police practice. Many believe that the Court has “handcuffed” the cops over the years. But to the extent that 4th Amendment cases, especially, have required personnel to know more about the people and places they investigate the rules have made the job safer and the process more just.
Already on the docket for this session are two major 4th Amendment cases, one from Florida and one from Missouri. However the Court comes down on these cases their opinions will have as yet unknown implications for police practice.
As today’s New York Times summarizes the issues:
Two important cases involve the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. In Florida v. Jardines, the issue is whether the police violated the Constitution by using a dog trained to smell for drugs to sniff at the door of a house where they suspected marijuana was being grown. Was the sniff test unreasonably intrusive because there was no hard information that illegal activity was probably occurring, as the Florida Supreme Court properly found, or was it not a search because it occurred outside the house?
Similarly, in Missouri v. McNeely, the issue is whether the police could order a blood test on a man suspected of drunken driving without obtaining a warrant because the delay in doing so would result in loss of evidence. The Missouri Supreme Court sensibly ruled otherwise: that the test constituted an unreasonable search because there was no accident to investigate and because there was plenty of time to get a warrant and test the driver’s blood before the alcohol in it dissipated.
The Court is also considering taking a case that will have implications on the use of deadly force. The case arose in Garland, Texas when a Garland officer shot and killed a teenager named Ruddy Elizondo. The following are the questions as summarized by the teen’s family in their petition to the Court to take the case. The Court will decide shortly whether to grant “certiorari.”
1. When an officer precipitates a violent confrontation ending in his use of force, should his own conduct making that force necessary be considered among the totality of circumstances determining whether the force was constitutionally excessive?
2. Does an individual’s obvious mental illness reduce the government’s justification for using force against him during an encounter with police?
The story, also as summarized the petition from the family of the deceased.
In 2009, a Garland, Texas police officer shot and killed a teenager he knew to be suicidal. The officer claimed he felt threatened by the boy, who brandished a small knife and cursed at him. But before pulling the trigger, the officer kicked open the distraught teen’s bedroom door, yelled at him, pointed a gun at him at close range, and prevented the boy from defusing the encounter by closing the door to his room. In the ensuing suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the teen’s parents claimed that this conduct needlessly escalated the confrontation and provoked their obviously disturbed son, making the shooting inevitable. They argued that the officer’s actions should therefore be considered among the totality of circumstances dictating whether the use of deadly force violated the Fourth Amendment. But in granting and affirming summary judgment against the parents, the courts below asked only whether the officer was threatened at the moment he fired, and refused to consider his provocative actions before pulling the trigger.