by Charlene M. Keller and Daniel L. Schofield, S.J.D.
During its 1994-1995 term, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on six cases of
particular interest to law enforcement officers and managers. The cases
involved the scope of the exclusionary rule for errors made by court
employees, the fourth amendment's "knock and announce" requirements, and
the constitutionality of a Federal statute prohibiting possession of a
firearm in a school zone.
Other legal issues addressed by the Court included the effect of after-
acquired evidence of employee wrongdoing in litigation under Federal
antidiscrimination laws, the right of local government entities to
appeal a denied motion for summary judgment in actions brought under 42
U.S.C. Section 1983 for alleged unconstitutional police conduct, and the
right of law enforcement officers to appeal immediately a court's denial
of qualified immunity in cases involving a factual dispute. This article
summarizes these six cases and their impact on law enforcement.
ARIZONA V. EVANS, 115 S. Ct. 1185 (1995)
In Evans, the Supreme Court held that the fourth amendment's
exclusionary rule does not require suppression of evidence gained during
arrests made on the basis of computer errors by clerical court
employees. In this case, a Phoenix police officer arrested the defendant
during a routine traffic stop when the patrol car's computer data
terminal showed an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for his arrest.
When a subsequent search of the defendant's car revealed a bag of
marijuana, the police officer charged him with possession. The defendant
moved to suppress the marijuana as fruit of an unlawful search because
the misdemeanor warrant had been quashed before his arrest but court
employees had erroneously left the warrant in the computer database. The
Arizona Supreme Court granted the motion to suppress the marijuana,
reasoning that the application of the exclusionary rule would serve to
improve the efficiency of recordkeepers in the criminal justice system.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the exclusion of
evidence was not required because court personnel were responsible for
the computer's inaccurate records.
The Court reaffirmed its decision in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897
(1984), in which the Court held that exclusion is not required where
officers act in "objectively reasonable reliance" on a properly issued
search warrant that later is ruled invalid. The Court in Evans created
an additional exception to the exclusionary rule for the errors of court
employees, using the Leon rationale that the exclusionary rule is
designed to deter police misconduct, not mistakes by court employees.
The Court concluded that application of the exclusionary rule would have
no significant effect on court employees responsible for informing
police that a warrant has been quashed because court clerks are not
members of the law enforcement team and therefore have no stake in the
outcome of particular criminal prosecutions.
Likewise, applying the exclusionary rule for the clerk's mistake would
not alter the arresting officer's behavior. Unfortunately, the Court did
not address in this decision whether the exclusionary rule would apply
if a police employee made the computer error.
Evans, however, does not relieve officers of their responsibility to
assess the reliability and potential for error of information obtained
from a computer system. In this regard, a concurring opinion in Evans
suggested exclusion would be required if officers blindly rely on
information in their data system, regardless of their knowing the
information is inaccurate or that the system is not generally reliable.
WILSON V. ARKANSAS, 115 S. Ct. 1914 (1995)
The Court in Wilson ruled that "knock and announce" requirements are
part of the reasonableness inquiry under the fourth amendment. In
evaluating the scope of the constitutional right to be secure in one's
home, the Court adopted the common law protection of announcing one's
presence and authority before entering a dwelling as a factor to be
considered in assessing the reasonableness of a search. Police officers
in this case arrived at the defendant's home with a search warrant after
receiving an informant's tip that drugs were being sold there. Upon
arriving, the police found the main door open, but the screen door
closed and unlocked. They identified themselves as police officers as
they entered the residence, where they subsequently seized marijuana and
drug paraphernalia. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the
evidence, arguing that the search was invalid due to the officers'
failure to knock and announce their presence before entering.
The lower courts denied the defendant's motion to suppress, noting that
the officers did identify themselves as they entered the residence.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and held that the fourth
amendment's reasonableness inquiry requires officers to knock and
announce prior to entry.
In its reasoning, the Court looked to the traditional protections
against unreasonable searches and seizures afforded by English common
law at the time the fourth amendment was framed. The Court determined
that the framers of the Constitution implied that the reasonableness of
a search of a dwelling may depend, in part, on whether law enforcement
officers announce their presence and authority prior to entering.
The Court did recognize, however, that in some circumstances, an
officer's unannounced entry might be reasonable if countervailing law
enforcement interests exist. For example, an officer's failure to knock
and announce could be considered reasonable when a prior announcement
would increase the threat of physical harm to the police or others,
increase the likelihood of escape, or increase the risk that evidence
would be destroyed.
The Court acknowledged that the police in Wilson may have reasonably
believed that a prior announcement would have placed them in peril and
increased the risk that the defendant would destroy easily disposable
drug evidence. Consequently, the Court remanded the case to allow the
State courts to determine whether such relevant countervailing factors
Wilson is an important case for law enforcement because it clarifies the
constitutional requirement that officers balance law enforcement
interests against fourth amendment knock and announce requirements.
Officers carefully must evaluate each entry situation with an awareness
that the exclusion of evidence could be the result of failing to knock
and announce prior to entering a residence.
UNITED STATES V. LOPEZ, 115 S. Ct. 1624 (1995)
In Lopez, the Court held that Congress exceeded its Commerce Clause
authority when it criminalized an individual's knowing possession of a
firearm in a school zone under the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. A
12th grade student challenged the constitutionality of his conviction
under Section 922(q) of this Federal statute for carrying a concealed
.38-caliber handgun to his high school.
The Court reviewed the authority of the Federal Government under the
Commerce Clause and concluded that Section 922(q) could not be sustained
under the power of Congress to regulate an activity that "substantially
affects" interstate commerce. First, Section 922(q) is a criminal
statute that, by its terms, has nothing to do with "commerce" or any
sort of economic enterprise and, therefore, is not a regulation of a
commercial transaction that substantially affects interstate commerce.
Second, there was no indication the defendant had moved in interstate
commerce, or that his possession of the handgun had moved in or had any
connection with interstate commerce.
The Court reaffirmed that the States possess primary authority in
defining and enforcing the criminal law in matters of State interest,
such as education. It then concluded that this particular Federal
statute inappropriately displaced the historic police powers reserved to
the States by the U.S. Constitution.
MCKENNON V. NASHVILLE BANNER PUBLISHING CO., 115 S. Ct. 879 (1995)
The issue before the Court in McKennon was whether an employee,
discharged because of age in violation of the Age Discrimination in
Employment Act (ADEA), was barred from all relief because the employer
subsequently discovered evidence of wrongdoing that would have led to
her termination on lawful and legitimate grounds. The employer
discharged McKennon after 30 years as part of a workforce reduction plan
necessitated by cost considerations. At 62, McKennon claimed she was
discriminated against due to her age. After the discharge, the employer
learned that while employed, McKennon had copied and taken home several
confidential financial documents in violation of her job
responsibilities. The lower Federal courts concluded that this after-
acquired evidence of her wrongdoing, which would have resulted in her
discharge, bars her from any relief under the ADEA.
The Supreme Court reversed and held that after-acquired evidence cannot
operate to bar all relief under the ADEA, but it can limit the remedy.
The Court reasoned that Federal laws intended to eradicate
discrimination in the workplace are designed to compensate employees for
injuries incurred and to deter employers from engaging in such
discrimination. Such deterrence and compensation objectives would not be
adequately served if after-acquired evidence of wrongdoing that would
have resulted in termination bars all relief for an employer's earlier
The Court distinguished cases where the sole basis for discharge is
discriminatory from those cases involving mixed motives. In mixed
motives cases, the employer's lawful reason alone at the time of the
discharge would sufficiently justify the firing. Consequently, the
legitimate factor for discharge would serve as an absolute bar to the
employee's discrimination claim. However, the employee may still bring a
claim of discrimination when legitimate justification either is acquired
after the dismissal, as in McKennon, or where the after-acquired
justification is not the motivating factor in the decision to discharge.
The Court also considered the legitimate prerogatives of employers in
deciding that after-acquired evidence of employee wrongdoing is relevant
to determine the appropriate remedy for an employer's discrimination.
Accordingly, the Court decided that as a general rule, neither
reinstatement nor front pay is an appropriate remedy, because it would
be both inequitable and pointless to order the reinstatement of someone
the employer would have terminated on lawful grounds. Because an ADEA
violation did occur in McKennon, which must be deterred and compensated
without infringing on the employer's legitimate interests, the Court
held that an appropriate remedy would be to calculate backpay from the
date of the unlawful discharge to the date the employer discovered the
The Court's decision in McKennon is of potential importance to law
enforcement organizations defending claims of employment discrimination
under Federal statutes such as the ADEA, 29 U.S.C. Section 621 et seq.
(1988); Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.Section
2000e et seq. (1988); and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,
42 U.S.C. Section 12101 et seq. (1988). The Court's ruling will assist
law enforcement officers and managers in evaluating the importance of
after-acquired evidence and how the subsequent remedies in such cases
will be determined.
SWINT V. CHAMBERS COUNTY, 115 S. Ct. 1203 (1995)
In Swint, patrons and proprietors of a nightclub brought a civil rights
action against a county commission (the county), the city, and three
individual police officers under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for civil rights
violations that allegedly occurred during successive police raids on the
nightclub. The county moved for summary judgment, arguing that the
sheriff, who authorized the raids, was not a policy-maker for the county
in the area of law enforcement but was a State of Alabama employee. When
the district court denied the motion for summary judgment, the county
immediately appealed. The Federal appellate court upheld the county's
motion on grounds that the sheriff was not a policymaker for the county.
The Supreme Court reversed and held that the county's appeal of the
district court's decision was inappropriate. The Court reasoned that the
county's assertion that the sheriff is not a policymaker does not rank
as an immunity from suit.
Instead, it acts as a mere defense to liability that can be reviewed
effectively on appeal after a final judgment. The Court distinguished
the county's appeal in Swint from an officer's appeal of a denial of a
qualified immunity claim by noting that qualified immunity is "an
immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability; and like
absolute immunity, it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously
permitted to go to trial."
This case is significant to law enforcement because it clarifies that
entities of local government sued under Section 1983 for alleged
unconstitutional police conduct do not have a qualified right to be free
from trial by being able to immediately appeal a denial of a summary
JOHNSON V. JONES, 115 S. Ct. 2151 (1995)
Johnson involved a civil action under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 against
five named police officers for use of excessive force. The plaintiff, a
diabetic, alleged he was having an insulin seizure when the police
mistakenly arrested him, believing him to be drunk. The plaintiff
claimed the police beat him while in custody at the station, breaking
several of his ribs.
Three of the officers moved for summary judgment based on qualified
immunity, arguing that the record contained no evidence that they used
excessive force or were present with the other two officers. The
plaintiff responded by noting that the three officers admitted in their
depositions that they were present at the arrest and in or near the
booking room when the plaintiff was there.
A Federal district court denied the officers' summary judgment motion
based on this factual dispute, and the officers immediately appealed.
The Federal appellate court refused to consider the appeal, stating that
it lacked jurisdiction over an issue of fact.
The Supreme Court agreed that the officers in Johnson did not have a
right to an interlocutory appeal--an appeal before the end of the court
proceedings--of the district court's denial of their claim of qualified
immunity, when the denial is based on a factual dispute. The Court
reasoned that Federal appellate courts have jurisdiction to hear such
appeals, but only when the appeal is based on the legal issue of whether
the officer allegedly violated a "clearly established" law.
The Court relied on Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 (1995), which
limits the right to an immediate appeal of denied qualified immunity to
cases where the claim of immunity is conceptually distinct from the
merits of the claim and relates only to the legal question of whether
the defendant's conduct violated clearly established law. In that case,
the Court held that a district court's order denying a defendant's
motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity was immediately
appealable, in part, because one important purpose of "qualified
immunity" was to protect public officials, not simply from liability but
also from standing trial.
The Court noted that interlocutory appeals can make it more difficult
for trial judges to supervise trial proceedings. Such appeals can delay
the proceedings, which adds costs and diminishes coherence. They also
risk additional and unnecessary work, because they present appellate
courts with scant records or introduce appeals that, had the trials
simply proceeded, would have turned out to be unnecessary. Therefore,
Jones is important to law enforcement employees because it clarifies
that interlocutory appeals of qualified immunity denials are not
appropriate if denial is based on a fact-related dispute concerning the
sufficiency of the evidence.
from the FBI's monthly magazine, 10/95
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