Legal Issues

Chapter Three addresses legal issues for the police. Of course many of the legal issues faced by the police will be from the Fourth Amendment rights of search and seizure. The police must have probable cause in order to secure a search warrant or an arrest warrant. The case of Brinegar v. US (1949) indicated that “probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officers’ knowledge, and of which they have reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient in themselves to warrant a belief by a man of reasonable caution that a crime is being committed.” This is a higher legal standard than reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion is based on objective facts and logical conclusions that crime has been or is about to be committed. Alabama v. White (1990) declared that reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause.

Evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment may be inadmissible in court because of the exclusionary rule. Evidence illegally obtained is inadmissible in court. An extension of the exclusionary rule is the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. This doctrine states that illegally obtained evidence used to secure further evidence must also be excluded.

Terry v. Ohio (1968) outlined the requirements for a stop and frisk. The police may briefly detain an individual and frisk the outer clothing of the individual if have a reasonable suspicion that the individual may be armed. This type of search is limited to looking for weapons that may harm the officer. Minnesota v. Dickerson made it clear that drugs found during a stop and frisk must be excluded as evidence.

Fourth Amendment requirements would cover arrest situations, in that an arrest is a seizure. US v. Watson (1976) stated that the police do not need a warrant for routine felony arrests made in public. However, Payton v. New York (1981) requires the police to secure a warrant for felony arrests in a private home unless exigent circumstances are present. Once arrested the police may search the area under the immediate control of the arrestee without needing a warrant, as declared in Chimel v. California (1969).

The police are permitted to make a protective sweep through the house to search for individuals that make pose a safety risk to the police. This is limited to a search for individuals, not evidence, as stated in Maryland v. Buie (1990).

The police are permitted to make warrantless searches in looking to secure property. Evidence in plain view of the police may be subject to seizure without needing a warrant. However, the case of Arizona v. Hicks made it clear that not all cases may be that “plain.” In this case the police turned around a suspected stolen stereo receiver to look at the serial number and the court ruled that a search.

Open fields do not fall until Fourth Amendment protections. This was the ruling in Oliver v. US (1984). California v. Greenwood (1988) ruled that abandoned property is not protected either.

The police are permitted to pursue individuals into buildings, including homes, without a warrant in accordance with the hot pursuit exception. Relatedly, the police may ask an individual for consent to search and a warrant would not be required. The citizen has the right to refuse to grant consent but the police do not need to advise the citizen of that right to refuse (Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 1973).

The issue of vehicle searches and the right to search has often been the subject of case law. Carroll v. United States (1925) allows for the police to search the vehicle if it is mobile and the police have probable cause. Wyoming v. Houghton (1999) allows for the search of passengers’ belongings with probable cause. If the police make a custodial arrest they are also permitted to search the passenger’s compartment of the vehicle without a warrant, even without probable cause (New York v. Belton, 1981).

The courts have also allowed pretextual stops. This would be a situation in which the police use the stop for a minor traffic violation as the pretext to a more serious violation. The court upheld this practice in the case of Whren v. US (1996). Also in regard to traffic-related searches, the case of Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz authorized police sobriety checkpoints.

One may look at the Fifth Amendment regarding interrogations and confessions. The case of Miranda v. Arizona (1966) requires the police to advise the defendant of his/her rights in cases of custodial interrogations. If the individual is in custody and the police are going to ask questions specific to the crime, they must advise the defendant of his/her right to remain silent and right to an attorney before beginning the questioning.

However, when there is a matter of public safety, the police may be permitted to ask questions of the defendant without first advising the defendant of his/her rights. This public safety exception was defined in the case of New York v. Quarles (1984). The threat to public safety will supersede the defendant’s rights against self-incrimination.

The inevitable discovery exception was the result of the case of Nix v. Williams (1984). This case first appeared before the Supreme Court under the citation of Brewer v. Williams (1977). At that time the Court reasoned that the speech made by the police was the functional equivalent to an interrogation and any responses made by the defendant would be inadmissible in court. However, in the Nix case, the Court ruled that the police would have inevitably found the girl’s body, even without the statements from Williams. Therefore the statements made by Williams would be admissible in court.

By the very nature of the job, the police may be subject to civil liability. The police may be sued in state court for violations of state law. They may also be sued in federal court for violations of constitutionally protected rights. Under state torts the police may be held liability for an intentional tort. This will involve behavior that is specifically designed to cause some type of injury or harm. The police did not have to intend the specific harm that resulted but did intend to enter into the behavior that led to the harm. Some common forms of intentional torts would include wrongful death, assault, false arrest, excessive use of force.

Negligent torts are for behavior that is inadvertent and unreasonable and results in damage or injury. To be successful in a claim of negligence, the plaintiff must prove a legal duty, a breach of duty, proximate cause, and actual damage or injury. Failure to prove all four of the requirements results in a finding for the defendant.

A civil liability case may be heard in federal court if the police violated an individual’s constitutional or federally protected right. Title 42 of the US Code, Section 1983 provides relief for the citizen. To be successful in a Section 1983 action, the plaintiff must show that the police were acting under the color of state law and that the violation was of a constitutionally protected right. The police have several defenses available to a Section 1983 claim. Defenses include absolute immunity, qualified immunity, probable cause, and good faith.

Important to consider is that the philosophy of community policing may lend itself to increases in civil liability. Given the greater contact with the public, the police may be exposed to more opportunities for civil liability, and, consequently, may reduce their contact with the public, which is known as depolicing.