WASHINGTON (CN) - Police waiting to execute a search warrant improperly seized the tenant about a mile away, the divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
After getting a tip that a heavyset black man named "Polo" had a gun and drugs in his Wyandanch, N.Y., basement apartment, Suffolk County Police Department detectives obtained a search warrant in July 2005.
Upon their arrival, detectives saw two men matching the description of Polo leaving the back of the residence. After the men got into a black Lexus and drove off, two detectives tailed them for about a mile and pulled them over. The search team meanwhile searched the apartment at 103 Lake Drive.
Unaware of that search, one of the men, Chunon Bailey, told the detectives that he was coming from his home as at 103 Lake Drive. Bailey had a key for that apartment and his driver's license showed his address in the neighborhood of Bayshore, which the confidential informant had identified as Polo's former address.
After putting Bailey and the other man, Bryant Middleton, in handcuffs, police then revealed that officers were searching 103 Lake Drive. Bailey then told the detectives that he did not live at that address and that anything there did not belong to him.
As Bailey and Middleton waited in the back of a police cruiser, the apartment search turned up at least 5 grams of cocaine and a firearm.
Facing drugs and weapons charges, Bailey claimed that his key and the statements he gave to detectives derived from an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
After a federal judge refused to suppress the evidence, a jury convicted Bailey on all three counts: possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, possession of a firearm by a felon, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. Bailey was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and the 2nd Circuit ruled
in July 2011 that the detectives had properly detained him.
The Supreme Court took up
the case in June 2012 to settle discord among the circuits as to whether search warrants cover the detention of occupants beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises.
Current precedent stems from the 1981 decision Michigan
, in which police detained a defendant on a walk leading down from the front steps of the house.
Unlike the 2005 decision Muehler v. Mena
, the rule in Summers
does not require law enforcement to have particular suspicion that an individual is involved in criminal activity or poses a specific danger to the officers.
The court concluded Tuesday that Summers
does not justify detentions beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises being searched.
"In the instant case Bailey had left the premises, apparently without knowledge of the search," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a six-member majority. "He posed little risk to the officers at the scene. If Bailey had rushed back to his apartment, the police could have apprehended and detained him under Summers
. There is no established principle, however, that allows the arrest of anyone away from the premises who is likely to return."
After driving away, Bailey also was not a threat to the proper execution of the search, according to the ruling.
"Had he returned, officers would have been free to detain him at that point," Kennedy wrote. "A general interest in avoiding obstruction of a search, however, cannot justify detention beyond the vicinity of the premises to be searched."
Flight is a concern only as far as it can damage the integrity of the search, according to the ruling.
"If not circumscribed, the rationale of preventing flight would justify, for instance, detaining a suspect who is 10 miles away, ready to board a plane," Kennedy wrote. "The interest in preventing escape from police cannot extend this far without undermining the usual rules for arrest based on probable cause or a brief stop for questioning under standards derived from Terry [v. Ohio]
. Even if the detention of a former occupant away from the premises could facilitate a later arrest should incriminating evidence be discovered, 'the mere fact that law enforcement may be made more efficient can never by itself justify disregard of the Fourth Amendment.'"
The court concluded as well that Bailey's detention was overly intrusive.
"A public detention, even if merely incident to a search, will resemble a full-fledged arrest," Kennedy wrote. "As demonstrated here, detention beyond the immediate vicinity can involve an initial detention away from the scene and a second detention at the residence. In between, the individual will suffer the additional indignity of a compelled transfer back to the premises, giving all the appearances of an arrest. The detention here was more intrusive than a usual detention at the search scene. Bailey's car was stopped; he was ordered to step out and was detained in full public view; he was handcuffed, transported in a marked patrol car, and detained further outside the apartment. These facts illustrate that detention away from a premises where police are already present often will be more intrusive than detentions at the scene."
Detectives could have tailed Bailey and Middleton and stopped them after receiving word from the search team about uncovered guns and weapons, and this would have provided probable cause for an arrest, according to the ruling.
Though he joined the court's opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote separately to emphasize how the 2nd Circuit bucked Summers
in favoring an interest-balancing approach.
"The existence and scope of the Summers
exception were predicated on that balancing of the interests and burdens," Scalia wrote, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. "But - crucially - whether Summers
authorizes a seizure in an individual case
does not depend on any balancing, because the Summers
exception, within its scope, is 'categorical.'" (Emphasis in original.)
"The question in this case is whether Summers
applies at all," Scalia added. "It applies only to seizures of 'occupants' - that is, persons within 'the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched.' Bailey was seized a mile away. Ergo, Summers
cannot sanction Bailey's detention. It really is that simple."
Scalia said the dissent echoed this mistake by replacing "that straightforward, binary inquiry with open-ended balancing."
The dissent, written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said that "the risks of flight, of evidence destruction, and of human injury present in this and similar cases" justify the police action against Bailey.
"Here the police, for good reason, permitted the occupants to leave the premises and stopped them a few blocks from the house," Breyer wrote. "The resulting question is whether this difference makes a constitutional difference. In particular, which is the right constitutional line to demarcate where a Summers
detention may be initiated? Is it the court's line, drawn at the 'immediate vicinity' of the house? Or is it the Second Circuit's line, drawn on the basis of what is 'reasonably practicable? I agree, of course, with the concurrence that the question involves drawing a line of demarcation granting a categorical form of detention authority. The question is simply where
that line should be drawn." (Emphasis in original.)
Breyer noted that the detectives let Bailey and Middleton progress from the house because they might have been armed.
"Indeed, even if those emerging occupants were not armed (and even if the police knew it), those emerging occupants might have seen the officers outside the house," Breyer wrote. "And they might have alerted others inside the house where, as we now know (and the officers had probable cause to believe), there was a gun lying on the floor in plain view. Suppose those inside the house, once alerted, had tried to flee with the evidence. Suppose they had destroyed the evidence. Suppose that one of them had picked up the gun and fired when the officer sentered. Suppose that an individual inside the house (perhaps under the influence of drugs) had grabbed the gun and begun to fire through the window, endangering police, neighbors, or families passing by." (Parentheses in original.)
"Considerations of this kind reveal the dangers inherent in the majority's effort to draw a semi-bright line," he added. "And they show the need here and in this class of cases to test the constitutionality of the details of a search warrant's execution by taking more directly into account concerns related to safety, evidence, and flight, i.e.,
the kinds of concerns more directly related to the Fourth Amendment's 'ultimate touchstone of ... reasonableness.'"