Many criminal complaints involve search and seizure issues. It is important to note that a search is generally different from a seizure. Often, a search will follow a seizure, and the government must constitutionally justify each event. That may sound like legalese. To put it more plainly, police generally cannot justify a routine traffic stop without having a suspicion of some violation of the law. Similarly, police generally need a warrant to search a home.
In 1981, the United States Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement could detain people without any suspicion of criminal activity during the execution of a search warrant. In 2005, police on the East Coast obtained a search warrant to raid a basement apartment. But before law enforcement entered, they say two men left the building and drove away in a BMW. There was no reason to believe either man knew of the impending search.
An officer trailed the BMW for about a mile, and after several minutes-a good distance away from the apartment named in the search warrant-the officer pulled the car over to detain the occupants of the vehicle. The government tried to justify the detention under the 1981 court ruling providing police the authority to detain someone incident to the execution of a search warrant.
While the man was detained by law enforcement, police obtained a key ring during a pat-down search. Officers found a key on the ring that fit the door of the basement apartment that was the subject of the search. A weapon and drugs seized under the warrant were linked to the man through the apartment key. The man was charged with weapons, drug possession and drug trafficking offenses.
The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police went too far. The high court held that police do not have that much discretion to conduct a traffic stop with no suspicion of criminal activity a mile from the search, just to detain the occupants of the vehicle.
The court ruled that such a traffic stop does little to protect the officers a mile away, or to protect the integrity of the search. The validity of the search warrant was not an issue, but the detention of the two men who had left with no knowledge of the search warrant.
The high court limited the authority to detain to the immediate vicinity if the warrant. Because of the distance involved in the East Coast case at issue, the court did not specifically define immediate vicinity.
- Huffington Post, “Supreme Court Limits Detention Powers In Police Searches,” Mark Sherman, Feb. 19, 2013
- United States Supreme Court, Bailey v. United States, No. 11-770. Argued November 1, 2012-Decided February 19, 2013