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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 existed.

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.


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 violation.

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 new information.

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 judgment motion.

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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