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How SCOTUS impacted policing in 2015

The Court has said reasonableness does not require perfection, but it does require a plausible satisfaction of Fourth Amendment criteria


This Oct. 13, 2015, photo shows the Supreme Court in Washington.

AP Image


Probable cause, search authority, and use of force standards were the prevailing issues confronted in this past year’s U.S. Supreme Court cases directly affecting law enforcement. The first of these cases — Heien v. North Carolina — was actually decided on December 15, 2014, three days after last year’s Supreme Court year-end review was published. In Heien, the issue was whether a police officer’s mistake of law could provide probable cause for a traffic stop.

In Rodriguez v. United States, the Court examined whether a police officer’s extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff is an unreasonable search. A police encounter with a mentally ill suspect was the focus of City & County of San Francisco v. Sheehan. In Kingsley v. Hendrickson, the Court considered what proof plaintiffs may submit at trial when alleging excessive use of force by police. And in Mullenix v. Luna, the Court ruled on whether or not a police officer was entitled to qualified immunity after shooting at a fleeing vehicle.

Here is a brief summary of these cases which have an ongoing effect on how police can do their jobs. Add your thoughts in the comments section below.

Heien v. North Carolina
A police sergeant on patrol pulled over a motor vehicle for only having one working rear brake light. A consent search of the vehicle ensued and cocaine was found. The vehicle’s owner, Nicholas Heien, who was not driving at the time of the stop but was a passenger in the rear seat of the vehicle, raised the fact on appeal that North Carolina law only required one working brake light. As a result, he argued, probable cause for the stop was lacking.

The prosecution argued that a reasonable mistake of law did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court sided 8-1 with the prosecution’s argument and held, “The ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness…to be reasonable is not to be perfect.” As long as the mistake of law is objectively reasonable, an officer’s mistake will not be fatal on the issue of probable cause to stop.

The Court’s decision followed a long line of cases wherein the Court previously ruled upon the admissibility of evidence obtained from reasonable legal rather than factual mistakes. This rationale gravitates toward a “good faith” type of exception to exclusion despite a technical Fourth Amendment violation.

In a second case from North Carolina, the Court issued a per curiam opinion in which it ruled that satellite-based monitoring (SBM) of a convicted sex offender was a search. Finding support for its decision in recent cases such as United States v. Jones (2012) and Florida v. Jardines (2013), the Court held that even though the monitoring program was civil in nature, the government’s stated purpose in collecting the information did not control the issue of whether or not a search occurred. Because the information gathering function of the government involved a physical intrusion upon the offender, it was a search.

The Court sent the case back to the state appellate court to determine whether, in spite of the fact the Court ruled SBM a search, it was reasonable. This short opinion, on the heels of the Heien decision, highlights an important aspect of Fourth Amendment discussion: that of reasonableness. The Fourth Amendment, as noted by the Grady decision, prohibits only unreasonable searches.

Rodriguez v. United States
The search theme continues with the Court’s April decision in Rodriguez v. United States, a dog sniff case. The Court ruled that absent exigent circumstances, a police officer’s extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff is an unreasonable search. The canine officer in this case pulled over Rodriguez and his passenger after observing the vehicle driving on the shoulder of a Nebraska highway in violation of state law.

After checking Rodriguez’s license (as well as his passenger’s), the officer issued a traffic offense warning to Rodriguez. The officer then asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his dog around the exterior of the vehicle. Rodriguez refused and the officer detained him until a second officer arrived. Methamphetamines were located as a result of the dog sniff. A short time span of 7-8 minutes elapsed from the time the officer issued the traffic offense warning to the dog’s alert.

The Court compared the traffic stop to a brief stop under Terry v. Ohio and held once the reason for the seizure is accomplished — in this instance, to address the traffic violation — the officer’s basis for further detention, absent independent reasonable suspicion or probable cause, is also completed. The Court distinguished the result in this case from the 2005 Illinois v. Caballes decision in which the Court held the Fourth Amendment is not violated by a dog sniff occurring during a lawful traffic stop.

City & County of San Francisco v. Sheehan
In City & County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, the Court had to resolve two issues:

1. Whether the police violated a clearly established right under the Fourth Amendment with their second entry into the suspect’s room.

2. Whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent and mentally ill suspect when attempting to take that suspect into custody.

In a majority opinion by Justice Alito, the Court answered “no” to the first question and dismissed the second as “improvidently granted.” The original question on review regarding the ADA claim was that Title II of the ADA did not apply when an officer faces an armed and dangerous individual. Since San Francisco did not proceed with this argument and instead argued that Sheehan was not “qualified” for an accommodation due to her violent behavior, the Court said the issue was not properly passed up from the lower circuit court for review.

The facts of the case are straightforward. Teresa Sheehan, a woman in her 50’s diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, lived in a group home for people with mental health issues. Police were summoned to the residence upon a complaint that Sheehan threatened to kill her social worker with a knife. The police were to remove Sheehan to a secure mental health facility. She threatened responding officers with a knife as they entered her room.

The officers backed out of the room and the door was closed. Concerned with what Sheehan was doing behind the closed door, the officers re-entered the private room and Sheehan threatened the officers again with her knife. The officers used pepper spray to no effect and then shot her multiple times.

Sheehan survived the shooting and brought suit under 42 USC §1983, alleging her civil rights were violated by the officers’ second entry into her room as well as their failing to take into account her disability prior to the use of force.

The Court said the officers were entitled to qualified immunity since they did not violate a clearly established constitutional or statutory right. Further, Justice Alito wrote that the second entry into Sheehan’s room was reasonable — since the first entry did not violate the Fourth Amendment it could not be said that the second one did. The use of force was also found to be reasonable.

Kingsley v. Hendrickson
Another use of force consideration is the June decision in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, wherein the Court — in a narrow 5-4 majority decision — made it easier for plaintiffs submitting proof to a jury considering excessive use of force claims.

Michael Kingsley, a pre-trial detainee awaiting trial in a Wisconsin county jail for a pending drug charge, was placed face down on a concrete bunk by four officers. He allegedly had his head slammed against the bunk, was kneed in the back, and shocked with a TASER for five seconds before being left for fifteen minutes while still handcuffed. The officers’ response was preceded by Kingsley’s failure to remove a covering from his cell light fixture and his alleged resistance to the officers’ commands upon entering his cell.

At trial, the court instructed the jury that in order to find for Kingsley, he had to prove that the officers knew or were aware their actions could result in undue harm to Kingsley. While Kingsley lost the trial, his eventual appeal was successful, giving him a potential second chance at the trial court level if a lower appellate court finds the jury instruction error serious enough to grant a new trial.

In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy said the proper standard to decide the legality of law enforcement use of force against a pre-trial detainee is one of “objective reasonableness” — not the more stringent subjective test (i.e., the officer was subjectively aware the use of force was unreasonable) as outlined in the jury instructions. According to Justice Kennedy, the objective standard protects an officer who acts in good faith since reasonableness of the force used is judged from the perspective and with the knowledge of the defendant officer.

Mullenix v. Luna
A final consideration for use of force, Fourth Amendment reasonableness, and qualified immunity is the recent November 9 decision in Mullenix v. Luna, in which the Court held a police officer was entitled to qualified immunity after shooting at a fleeing vehicle. Of the six shots the officer fired at the vehicle in an attempt to disable it, four struck the operator in the torso and killed him.

The family of the decedent filed an excessive force lawsuit against the officer. At issue was the merit of the officer’s claim that firing at the vehicle was an alternative to spike strips deployed by other officers. The officer requested radio permission from his supervisor to fire at the vehicle but was allegedly told to wait and see how the spike strips worked. Based on his concern for other officers as the fleeing vehicle approached, he fired at the vehicle which continued forward, ran over the spike strip, hit a traffic median and rolled over two and a half times.

The vehicle operator — Israel Leija — was wanted on an arrest warrant and had fled from a local officer’s attempt to arrest him on the warrant. During the course of the pursuit, which lasted 18 minutes at speeds between 85-110 miles per hour, the suspect called a local police dispatcher and claimed to have a gun and threatened to shoot police officers if they did not back off from the pursuit.

Both the district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the officer’s summary judgment motion based on qualified immunity, claiming there were genuine issues of fact as to whether the officer’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances. The Supreme Court granted review on the issue of qualified immunity and in a per curiam opinion found that “[B]ecause the Constitutional rule applied by the Fifth Circuit was not “beyond debate”” the Fifth Circuit’s determination denying qualified immunity was reversed.”

In so holding, the Court reviewed its more recent vehicle pursuit decisions in Scott v. Harris (2007) and Plumhoff v. Rickard (2014) where in both cases it found no Fourth Amendment violations in police use of deadly force to terminate pursuits. However, the Court in Mullenix limited its review to the qualified immunity question, not the propriety of the use of force, as it did in Scott and Plumhoff. Qualified immunity, the Court said, is a question to be considered in “the specific context of the case.”

Likewise, whether clearly established law was violated is an inquiry undertaken not at a “high level of generality” but “in light of the specific context of the case.” Mullenix should not be read to expand police officer’s use of force in terminating vehicle pursuits. Officers must still be guided by department policy and state law (for instance, Connecticut’s Uniform Statewide Pursuit Policy.) Once again, the reasonableness of the officer’s actions in light of the rapidly developing circumstances confronting the officer is the crux of any post-incident inquiry.

While Kingsley has been hailed in some circles as ushering in a new standard for scrutiny of police officer use of force, the Court’s opinion is not as sweeping as proclaimed nor does it greatly expand existing case law in the area. However, what Kingsley and the other cases reviewed here reinforce is that law enforcement officers are expected to account for their actions — whether it be in a search or use of force context impacting Fourth Amendment rights — and in doing so must be able to justify those actions as framed within the rapidly evolving circumstances confronting them. As noted above, the Court has said reasonableness does not require perfection, but it does require a plausible satisfaction of Fourth Amendment criteria.

As always, a happy holiday season to all as we take time to reflect on the sacrifices made by those in law enforcement and our military over the course of this past year and by those who preceded them. 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).