Vol. 3, No. 1 | February 2008

Legal Summaries: Criminal Procedure Update

by Sara Poole
Legal Specialist
Virginia State Police
E-Mail:  Sara.Poole@vsp.virginia.gov

UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT FOURTH AMENDMENT CASES

Brendlin v. California (2007)

In a United States Supreme Court case decided June 18, 2007, Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. ___  (2007), the Supreme Court held that passengers in a vehicle stopped have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the stop.  The Court noted that although they had not squarely answered the standing issue of passengers before Brendlin, they had stated many times before in dicta (comments that were not critical to the Court’s resolution of a case) that during a stop everyone is seized. 

In Brendlin, officers stopped a car to check its registration.  One of the officers knew the passenger, Brendlin and verified that he was a parole violator.  Officers arrested him for the violation, searched him incident to arrest and discovered methamphetamine paraphernalia.

Brendlin moved to suppress the evidence obtained in searching his person and the car, arguing that the officers lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion. The California State Supreme Court held that suppression was unwarranted because a passenger is not seized as a constitutional matter, absent additional circumstances that would indicate to a reasonable person that he was the subject of the officer's investigation or show of authority, which had been a standard defense to a standing objection by a passenger in the past in some jurisdictions. 

The Court ruled that a “seizure occurs … in light of all the surrounding circumstances, [when] a reasonable person would have believed he was not free to leave. “E.g., United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (principal opinion).  The Court reasoned that “[a]ny reasonable passenger would have understood the officers to be exercising control to the point that no one in the car was free to depart without police permission.  A traffic stop necessarily curtails a passenger's travel just as much as it halts the driver, diverting both from the stream of traffic to the side of the road, and the police activity that normally amounts to intrusion on “privacy and personal security” does not normally (and did not here) distinguish between passenger and driver. United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 554.  An officer who orders a particular car to pull over acts with an implicit claim of right based on fault of some sort, and a sensible person would not expect the officer to allow people to come and go freely from the physical focal point of an investigation into faulty behavior or wrongdoing.”

This ruling only makes sense and corrects an inequity where the driver and passenger are both charged; however the driver was able to object to the unconstitutional stop and have it suppressed under the exclusionary rule, but the passenger was not and was convicted as a result.  This case is also a good reminder that law enforcement need to make good stops to begin with and not be concerned about a standing defense to the exclusionary rule and treat all searches and seizures as if everyone affected has standing to object.

Los Angeles County v. Rettele (2007)

In another United States Supreme Court decided May 21, 2007, Los Angeles County v. Rettele, 550 U.S. ___  (2007), the Court held that occupants of a residence subjected to a seizure during execution of a valid search warrant could not recover from the law enforcement officers even though the prior occupants (who were the real suspects in the investigation) had moved three months earlier.  One had registered a 9-millimeter Glock handgun.  When the deputies searched the house, they found in a bedroom two residents of another race. The deputies ordered these innocent residents, who had been sleeping unclothed, out of bed. The deputies required them to stand for a few minutes before allowing them to dress.

The residents brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming the deputies and other parties and accusing them of violating the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  The Court held that “in executing a search warrant officers may take reasonable action to secure the premises and to ensure their own safety and the efficacy of the search … Unreasonable actions include the use of excessive force or restraints that cause unnecessary pain or are imposed for a prolonged and unnecessary period of time” (cites omitted).

The Court reasoned that detentions such as this were necessary to protect the safety of the officers.  “The Constitution does not require an officer to ignore the possibility that an armed suspect may sleep with a weapon within reach…“[t]he risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation”  (cites omitted).  The Court went on to point out that they could not detain them for longer than necessary once they found out the mistake (here it was just a few minutes for both).

The Court further explained that “the Fourth Amendment allows warrants to issue on probable cause, a standard well short of absolute certainty.  Valid warrants will issue to search the innocent, and people like Rettele and Sadler unfortunately bear the cost.  When officers execute a valid warrant and act in a reasonable manner to protect themselves from harm, however, the Fourth Amendment is not violated.”

The Court recognized that mistakes will happen without creating civil liability on law enforcement officers who are acting in good faith.

VIRGINIA CASES

Byrd v. Commonwealth (2007)

In Byrd v. Commonwealth, 50 Va. App. 542, 651 S.E.2d 414 (2007), the Virginia Court of Appeals held that where a confidential informant who was credible and reliable had given information to an officer regarding the Defendant selling drugs on a corner, but did not state that he had observed the sale or possession or how he came into possession of the information, there was not probable cause for the arrest. 

“When a confidential informant provides the basis for probable cause, there are two considerations that are particularly relevant to our analysis: (1) the veracity or reliability of the informant and (2) the informant's basis of knowledge.” (quoting Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 230 (1983)).  The Court went on to state that although the CI was reliable, the informant did not provide any basis for his knowledge of Byrd's criminal activity.  The basis of an informant's tip must be “something more substantial than a casual rumor circulating in the underworld or an accusation based merely on an individual's general reputation.”  (citing Spinelli v. United States, 393 U.S. 410, 416 (1969).

Although this case does not state any new standard, it is a good reminder to be thorough in gathering facts during the investigation and covering all of the required elements in testimony.

Stallings v. Commonwealth (2007)

In a Virginia Court of Appeals unpublished opinion, Stallings v. Commonwealth, 07 Vap UNP 2690063 (2007), the Court basically followed the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. ___, 126 S. Ct. 1943, 164 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2006) and held that the officers’ subjective motivation did not affect the community caretaker or emergency exception to the search warrant requirement.

The Court followed the emergency doctrine and stated the officers' initial entry of appellant's home was reasonable.  The Court then stated that prior holdings requiring that entries not be pretextual were overruled by the Stuart holding as long as the entries were objectively reasonable.

In the case before the Court, officers received information from the landlord and neighbor that they were concerned about the appellant’s child’s safety.  The child had called a relative and stated she was scared because appellant “was shooting guns in the house” and when a neighbor went to the house to investigate, appellant pointed a shotgun at her through his glass front door.  The same person told police she did not know where appellant's child was at that point.  The Court held there was reason to believe the daughter “might be inside the residence and seriously injured or threatened with such injury and ‘in need of immediate aid,’ either because appellant might injure her intentionally or recklessly or because she might be a threat to herself if left alone inside the residence with a firearm” (cites omitted).

The Court further held that because the officer’s entry of the residence “was objectively reasonable under the emergency doctrine, it is irrelevant that he may also have harbored a desire when he entered to investigate appellant's probable criminal conduct in brandishing a firearm and possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a felony.”

This case illustrates another instance where the Court has abandoned any concern about subjective motivation or pretextual actions on the part of law enforcement as long as they are legitimately conducting police business.

Disclaimer:  The content of the Virginia Police Legal Bulletin does not constitute legal advice, nor does it reflect the opinions or views of the Virginia Police Legal Advisors Committee