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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Supreme Court: No Detention of Offsite Occupants During Searches of Homes

By Christopher Doi

On February 19th, the Supreme Court announced that the detention of offsite occupants during a warranted search is an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In Bailey v. United States, law enforcement officers observed Bailey and another man drive away from the premises prior to the execution of a search warrant. The officers subsequently followed and stopped both men approximately a mile away. During a pat down of Bailey, the officers’ discovered a key to the searched premises.  The officers handcuffed and returned both men to the premises pursuant under the Summers rule. That rule  articulated in Michigan v. Summers, allows law enforcement officers to detain occupants while conducting their search. Bailey was charged with three drug and firearm-related federal offenses.  At trial, Bailey motioned to suppress the evidence of the key on grounds that it was obtained by during an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment. After both the district court and Second Circuit Court of Appeals denied the motion, the Supreme Court reversed, limiting the Summers rule to the immediate vicinity to be searched.  

Under the Fourth Amendment, detentions incident to the execution of a search warrant must be reasonable in that the law enforcement’s interest outweighs the intrusion on personal liberty. The government raised three law enforcement interests, under Summers, to justify the offsite detentions. First, the government argued that offsite detentions are necessary in order to ensure officer safety by limiting the risk  that individuals will return while the search is in progress, limiting the risk that officers conducting the search would have to confront  dangerous individuals, and limiting the risk that an individual offsite might alert other onsite occupants.  The Court rejected this argument, explaining that officer safety can be achieved through other non-intrusive means.

Second, the government argued that law enforcement interest in promoting efficiency of a search justifies the detention and return of individuals to the premises. The Court also rejected this argument, reasoning that only the detention of occupants in the immediate vicinity of the search is justified to prevent occupants from interfering with the ongoing search.  

Third, the government argued that it has an interest in preventing individuals from fleeing once incriminating evidence is discovered during a search.  The Court agreed that unrestrained occupants could adversely affect law enforcement if they believe the occupant could flee; however, the Court reasoned that allowing offsite detention was too broad and could justify any detention during the course of a search, even of a person ten miles away.

In an unusual alliance, Justices Breyer, Thomas, and Alito joined in a dissent arguing that the offsite detention was justified because the detention was effected as soon as reasonably practicable. However, six justices, including conservative Justices Anthony Kennedy and John Roberts, joined to hold that police can’t simply detain people far away from a property being searched. After Florida v. Harris, Johnson v. Williams, and Chaidez v. United States spelled a rough week for the rights of Americans accused of and charged with crimes, Bailey was a victory for the Fourth Amendment.

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