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SCOTUS year in review: 5 cases impacting law enforcement

Excessive force, warrantless blood draws and civil asset forfeiture were some of the issues SCOTUS addressed in 2019


A view of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

There is a song from the 1970s written by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer titled “Everything Old Is New Again.” This is the theme for this year’s U.S. Supreme Court year in review.

We begin with a qualified immunity case, a topic that provided the lead for my Supreme Court year in review for 2018 and 2017, and follow with a case involving the warrantless blood draw of a DWI suspect, a topic covered in my 2016 Supreme Court roundup.

The last case revisits a topic covered in my 2012 year in review of Reichle v. Howards and answers the question of whether probable cause to arrest nullifies a retaliatory arrest claim.

Also, included in this year’s review is a case of significant impact involving the Court’s incorporation of the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause and one upholding the dual sovereignty doctrine.

City of Escondido v. Emmons

The issue, in this case, was whether police officers violated clearly established law when they forcibly apprehended a man at the scene of a reported domestic violence incident.

In April 2013 an officer responded to the Emmons residence after a 911 call by Mrs. Emmons regarding a domestic incident with her husband. The husband was arrested for injuries caused to his wife and subsequently released.

The complainant, Mrs. Emmons, resided at the apartment with her husband, two children and a roommate, Ametria Douglas. A month later police received a 911 call regarding another domestic violence incident at the same apartment. The caller this time was the mother of the roommate, Ametria Douglas, who was not at the apartment, but was on the phone with her daughter and heard her daughter, Ametria, and Mrs. Emmons yelling at each other. The same officer who handled the April call arrived with a second officer. Body-worn cameras were in use by the officers and included in the original trial record.

The responding officers spoke to Mrs. Emmons through a window and attempted to get her to come to the door to speak to them. A man was observed through the window who was heard to instruct Mrs. Emmons to move away from the window. In the meantime, three more officers arrived at the scene, one of them a sergeant.

A man came to the door and stepped outside. He was instructed to leave the door open, but he closed it and attempted to leave by brushing past the officers. One of the originally responding officers stopped the man and used a physical maneuver to take him to the ground and handcuff him. The man was the father of Mrs. Emmons.

A subsequent civil lawsuit did not challenge the probable cause for the arrest; however, it did allege that in arresting the father the police used excessive force.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California held for the officers. In doing so the court applied existing U.S. Supreme Court precedent and granted the officers qualified immunity. The court said, “the law did not clearly establish” that the officer “could not take down an arrestee in these circumstances.”

On appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court reversed and remanded for trial based on its determination that the “right to be free of excessive force was clearly established at the time of the events in question.”

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit due to its finding that the circuit court failed to follow the Supreme Court’s prior case law regarding qualified immunity. U.S. Supreme Court precedent in this area has held that “qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” This requires that the clearly established right be defined with specificity, not the generality engaged in by the 9th Circuit.

The case was sent back to the 9th Circuit for it to determine whether, based on a proper application of Supreme Court precedent, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity.

Mitchell v. Wisconsin

Does a state’s implied consent law provide an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement?

In this case, a Wisconsin motorist arrested for DWI became lethargic while being transported to the police station for processing. The arresting officers brought him to the hospital where the motorist lapsed into unconsciousness. Officers asked hospital personnel to draw blood and the results were a .22 blood alcohol content. The motorist was charged with DWI and he subsequently sought to suppress the results of the warrantless blood draw. State prosecutors argued that the state’s implied consent law did not require a warrant.

On appeal up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the blood draw was upheld but the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not provide a unified rationale for the exception. A plurality opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court, written by Justice Alito, held that the existence of exigent circumstances will permit a blood draw without a warrant. The rationale for the exigency exception is that the “compelling need for official action” does not provide enough time to secure a warrant. The plurality identified the “compelling need” of highway safety as a “vital public interest,” state laws with blood alcohol limits for vehicle operation serve that interest, and government enforcement efforts require tests accurate enough to provide reliable evidence in court.

Timbs v. Indiana

It has been a staple of government drug enforcement efforts for civil asset forfeiture to follow a conviction for possession or sale of controlled substances. Asset forfeiture, often controversial, has been an effective tool in combatting organized crime and elaborate drug trafficking conspiracies. However, the controversy has been aimed at the seemingly unfair impact asset forfeiture has on those who commit lower-level drug offenses.

The facts of this case brought the issue squarely before the Supreme Court as Tyson Timbs challenged the state’s seizure of his $42,000.00 Land Rover after he was convicted of drug offenses. Timbs was sentenced to six years incarceration with five years suspended and a $1,200.00 fine. The trial court denied the State’s request for seizure of the Land Rover, a vehicle he purchased with proceeds from his deceased father’s estate. The court said the seizure amounted to an excessive fine disproportionate to the maximum $10,000.00 fine he could have faced under the statute.

The state appeals court affirmed but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed and said the U.S. Supreme Court had not incorporated the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause through the 14th Amendment, thus making it enforceable against the states. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, in a unanimous majority opinion, wrote that the Eighth Amendment Excessive Fines Clause is incorporated through the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause and applicable to the states. The practical effect of this case will be a change in the seizure practices of state and local agencies. While the case does not eviscerate asset forfeiture as an enforcement device it does significantly limit past practices.

Gamble v. United States

The Fifth Amendment, among the several individual protections it provides, states that no person shall be twice placed in jeopardy for the same offense.

Gamble was a prior convicted felon who was in possession of a gun during a traffic stop. He was arrested and prosecuted in Alabama and sentenced to one year. However, his offense was also in violation of federal law and he was separately prosecuted and sentenced to 46 months in federal prison.

He appealed the federal sentence to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals where the federal sentence was upheld under the 1959 U.S. Supreme Court precedent of Abbate v. United States. In Abbate, the Supreme Court held that prosecution of a conspiracy under federal law was not prohibited when the same conspiracy was prosecuted, and a conviction obtained under state law. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 7-2 majority decision did not provide Gamble the relief he hoped for and the Court upheld the “dual sovereignty doctrine.” Since the federal and state governments are two separate sovereigns the double jeopardy clause does not apply to the prosecution of the same crime by the two separate sovereigns.

Nieves v. Bartlett

Here are the simple facts: outdoor winter festival with large crowds and plenty of alcohol around 1:30 a.m.; individual (Bartlett) with a recreational vehicle and keg of beer is approached by a state trooper (Nieves) who asks him to put the keg in the vehicle because some youths were in the area and gaining access to alcohol; individual is belligerent with the trooper and yelling to other RV owners to ignore the police and not speak with them; since there is no crime and he does not want to escalate the situation the trooper continues patrolling the crowd.

A bit later another trooper approaches another individual who appears underage and intoxicated; while the trooper is talking to the individual, the aforementioned Bartlett comes over and tells the young man he does not have to talk to the police and begins to loudly yell at the trooper who pushes him away; Bartlett becomes physically aggressive. Trooper Nieves is nearby, sees the commotion and comes to aid his fellow trooper.

Bartlett is arrested and Nieves allegedly says to him, “Bet you wish you would have talked to me now.” This alleged statement, however, is not captured on either trooper’s body-worn camera.

Bartlett is arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and placed in a holding tent until released. No formal charges were ever filed.

Bartlett later sues for false arrest and false imprisonment. The federal district court dismissed both claims since the troopers had probable cause to arrest Bartlett, thereby negating any false arrest claim.

On appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court affirmed the district court except for the false arrest claim, holding that Bartlett could make a claim for a retaliatory arrest based on the exercise of his First Amendment right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that the existence of probable cause defeated any retaliatory arrest claim made by Bartlett.

As always, happy holidays to all and stay safe.

Terrence P. Dwyer retired from the New York State Police after a 22-year career as a Trooper and Investigator. He is a tenured professor of legal studies at Western Connecticut State University and an attorney consulting on law enforcement liability, disciplinary cases, critical incidents, and employment matters. He is the author of “Homeland Security Law: Issues and Analysis,” Cognella Publishing (2024).