SCOTUS 2019: An Overview On Cases That Could Affect Law Enforcement

The United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has an interesting agenda on law enforcement topics for 2019. Some cases will assist law enforcement in their daily interactions with the community, and when conducting criminal investigations, others will cause controversy and could delay or hamper their efforts if decided the wrong way.

The topics to be decided include:

1. First Amendment and Probable cause: Does probable cause defeats a retaliatory arrest claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983?

2. Statute of limitations for 42 U.S.C. 1983 claims: Does it start to run when the proceedings conclude in defendant’s favor or does it start when the defendant becomes aware of tainted evidence, and it’s improper use?

3. Fourth Amendment: Can a statute allowing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist be an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement?

4. Investigative (Terry) Stops: When conducting an investigative stop, it is reasonable for an officer to suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is the one driving the vehicle absent any information to the contrary?

Nieves v. Barlett No. 17-1174
Argued: November 26, 2018

Issue: Whether probable cause defeats a First Amendment retaliatory-arrest claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

During a festival in Alaska, Sergeant Nieves and Trooper Weight were about to arrest Russell Barlett for harassment, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, or assault under Alaska law. Bartlett alleged that petitioners Luis Nieves and Bryce Weight, two Alaska state troopers, arrested him because he exercised his First Amendment right when he refused to talk with Nieves (who wanted him to move a keg indoors) and because he told Weight not to talk with a teenager outside the presence of the youth’s parents. The troopers responded that Bartlett’s retaliatory-arrest claim should fail because they had probable cause for the arrest. When Sergeant Nieves initiated Bartlett’s arrest, he knew that Bartlett had been drinking, and he observed Bartlett speaking in a loud voice and standing close to Trooper Weight. He also saw Trooper Weight push Bartlett back.

Russell Bartlett sued Nieves and Weight claiming false arrest, excessive force, malicious prosecution, and retaliatory arrest. The District Court granted summary judgment to Nieves and Weight on all the claims. Bartlett appealed to the 9th Circuit, and they affirmed in part and reversed in part.

The Circuit Court agreed that the defendants had probable cause to arrest Bartlett and that both officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the excessive force claims. The Court, however, reversed the district court’s dismissal of Bartlett’s retaliatory arrest claim since a plaintiff can prevail on that claim even if the officers had probable cause to arrest.

McDonough v. Smith, 18-485
Argued: April 17, 2019

Issue: Whether the statute of limitations for a Section 1983 claim based on fabrication of evidence in criminal proceedings begins to run when those proceedings terminate in the defendant’s favor, as the majority of circuits have held, or whether it begins to run when the defendant becomes aware of the tainted evidence and its improper use, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit held below.

During a 2009 primary election in the City of Troy, New York, several individuals forged signatures and provided false information on absentee ballots in order to affect the outcome of that primary. Those individuals then submitted the forged absentee ballot applications to Edward McDonough, who was responsible for processing those applications. McDonough approved the forged applications but subsequently claimed he did not know that they had been falsified. The plot to influence the primary was eventually discovered. The state court then appointed Youel Smith as a Special District Attorney to lead the investigation and potential prosecution. McDonough claimed that Smith then engaged in an elaborate scheme to frame McDonough for the crimes by, among other things, fabricating evidence. McDonough claims that Smith presented the fabricated evidence to a grand jury. The grand jury subsequently indicted McDonough on numerous counts. The case against McDonough proceeded to trial but ended in a mistrial. McDonough was then retried, again with Smith as the prosecutor. That trial ended in McDonough’s acquittal on December 21, 2012.

On December 18, 2015, McDonough filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the Defendants (including Smith) (1) had violated his right to due process by fabricating evidence and later using it against him before the grand jury and in his two trials and (2) were liable for malicious prosecution. Defendants filed motions to dismiss McDonough’s due process claim. They argued, in part, that it was barred by the applicable three–year statute of limitations because the allegedly fabricated evidence had been disclosed to McDonough, and his claim therefore accrued, well before the second jury acquitted him. McDonough argued that because his fabrication of evidence claim was based on the actions of Smith, a prosecutor, it was analogous to a malicious prosecution claim, and therefore did not accrue until the second trial terminated in his favor. McDonough also contended that his due process claim did not accrue until the termination of the second trial.

The district court dismissed McDonough’s due process claims against all Defendants as untimely and his malicious prosecution claim against Smith on the basis of absolute prosecutorial immunity. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Mitchell v. Wisconsin No. 18-6210
Argued: April 23, 2019

Issue: Whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

Officers from the City of Sheboygan Police Department in Wisconsin were dispatched in response to a report that the caller had seen Gerald Mitchell, who appeared intoxicated, get into a gray van and drive away. Between 30 and 45 minutes later, one of the officers made contact with Mitchell as he was walking near a beach. Mitchell was wet, shirtless and covered in sand. Mitchell’s speech was slurred, and he had difficulty maintaining his balance.

Mitchell admitted that he had been drinking prior to driving and that he continued drinking at the beach. He also stated that he had parked his vehicle “because he felt he was too drunk to drive.” Nearby, officers found the gray van Mitchell was reported to have been driving. After observing Mitchell’s physical condition, the officer believed that it would not be safe to conduct standard field sobriety tests. Instead, he administered a preliminary breath test, which indicated a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.24. Mitchell was arrested for operating while intoxicated.

Following his arrest, Mitchell’s physical condition deteriorated. Upon arrival at the police station, it became apparent that an evidentiary breath test would not be feasible. Instead, the officer opted to transport Mitchell to a nearby hospital for a blood draw.

During the drive to the hospital, Mitchell would not wake up with any type of stimulation. Upon arriving at the hospital, Mitchell needed to be transported in a wheelchair and was unable to maintain an upright seating position.  The officer read Mitchell the Informing the Accused form, thereby reading Mitchell the statutory opportunity to withdraw his consent to a blood draw. However, Mitchell was so incapacitated that he could not answer. The officer directed hospital staff to draw a sample of Mitchell’s blood. There was no warrant sought prior to drawing Mitchell’s blood. The analysis of his blood sample showed a BAC of 0.222.

After being charged, Mitchell moved to suppress the results of the blood test. He alleged that the warrantless blood draw violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 11 of the Wisconsin Constitution. The State contended that he had consented to the blood draw when he drove his van on Wisconsin highways. The State also contended that as an unconscious person, he is presumed not to have withdrawn his consent, pursuant to § 343.305(3)(b). The circuit court denied Mitchell’s suppression motion. The circuit court concluded that the officer had probable cause to believe that Mitchell was driving while intoxicated, and therefore, the blood draw was lawful. A jury convicted Mitchell of the OWI and PAC charges. Mitchell appealed his conviction based on the sole contention that the warrantless blood draw violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Supreme Court of Wisconsin affirmed.

Kansas v. Glover, 18-556
Argued: TBD

Issue: Whether, for purposes of an investigative stop under the Fourth Amendment, it is reasonable for an officer to suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is the one driving the vehicle absent any information to the contrary.

While on routine patrol, Douglas County Deputy Mark Mehrer observed a 1995 Chevrolet pickup truck and ran the truck’s license plate number. Deputy Mehrer learned Charles Glover, Jr., had registered the vehicle and Glover’s Kansas driver’s license had been revoked. Deputy Mehrer did not observe any traffic violations but initiated a traffic stop based on his assumption that Glover was driving the vehicle. He did not try to confirm the identity of the driver before initiating the traffic stop.

The State charged Glover with driving as a habitual violator. He filed a motion to suppress evidence, arguing the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop. The district court found that the officer’s assumption that the car’s driver was the registered owner was unreasonable and granted the motion to suppress. The State appealed that ruling and the Court of Appeals reversed. The Supreme Court of Kansas reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the district court’s ruling. They held that the officer lacked an articulable and reasonable suspicion that the unidentified driver did not have a valid driver’s license; the officer’s assumption was only a hunch and was unsupported by a particularized and objective belief. The State appealed.