U.S. Supreme Court Wrap Up

January 10, 2017

Each year, the U.S. Supreme Court decides several cases affecting local governmental interests. Here is our year-end review of some of those important decisions plus a few cases yet to be decided in the months to come.

Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016): State implied consent laws that criminalize a DUI driver’s refusal to submit to warrantless blood testing are prohibited under the Fourth Amendment, but warrantless breath tests are not.

This case (in actuality, three consolidated cases from North Dakota and Minnesota) addresses whether state laws that criminalize a driver’s refusal to submit to breath or blood testing upon being lawfully stopped and arrested for drunk driving violates the Fourth Amendment.

A few years ago, the Supreme Court held that the natural dissipation of alcohol from the bloodstream did not constitute an exigency justifying the warrantless taking of a blood sample from a DUI suspect. See Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S. Ct. 1552 (2013). However, the Court in McNeely expressly refused to categorically expand its holding to other exceptions to the warrant requirement. The Court granted certiorari in Birchfield to determine whether the exception for a search incident to arrest justified the state implied consent laws that criminalized such refusals.

The Court easily found that breath tests do not implicate significant privacy interests, citing Maryland v. King, 133 S. Ct. 1958 (2013) (upholding warrantless DNA testing as part of legitimate booking procedures). Blood tests, however, are a different matter. They require piercing the human skin and extracting a part of the human body. Also, unlike breath tests, the results from blood tests can be preserved and additional information beyond a BAC reading may be obtained. Thus, the privacy interest in compelling blood testing is significant. Although the Court found that the implied consent laws serve significant interests, namely to reduce the threat of and deter drunk driving, those interests are not enough to overcome the privacy interests inherent in blood testing. Therefore, the Court concluded that the Fourth Amendment permitted a warrantless breath test incident to an arrest for drunk driving, but it did not justify blood testing.

Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016): Discovery of Valid Arrest Warrant Sufficiently Attenuated the Seizure of Drugs from an Unlawful Investigatory Stop.

In this case, the Supreme Court addressed whether the “attenuation doctrine” applies when a police officer makes an unconstitutional investigatory stop but then learns that there is an unrelated arrest warrant and seizes incriminating evidence as a search incident to the arrest.

Narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell stopped Edward Strieff on suspicion of drug possession. When the detective learned that there was an unrelated, outstanding warrant for Strieff’s arrest, he arrested him and, in searching him incident to the arrest, found a baggie of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Strieff moved to suppress the evidence, claiming that it was the product of an unlawful investigatory stop. The prosecutor conceded that the stop was unlawful, but argued that the evidence was lawfully seized because the valid arrest warrant sufficiently attenuated the connection between the stop and finding the evidence. The Utah Supreme Court upheld suppression of the evidence.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, held that the evidence discovered on Strieff’s person was admissible because the unlawful stop was sufficiently attenuated by the pre-existing arrest warrant. Although the illegal stop was close in time to Strieff’s arrest, that consideration was outweighed by two factors supporting the State. First, the outstanding arrest warrant was a critical intervening circumstance that was wholly independent of the illegal stop, and the discovery of the warrant broke the causal chain between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of the evidence by compelling Officer Fackrell to arrest Strieff. Second, the Court found it significant that Officer Fackrell did not engage in flagrantly unlawful police misconduct.

Heffernan v. City of Paterson, New Jersey, 136 S. Ct. 1412 (2016): Demotion Based on Perceived But Mistaken Belief that Employee Was Exercising Protected Political Activity Supported First Amendment Claim.

The issue in this case was whether the First Amendment prohibits retaliation against a public employee (i.e., demotion) based on the public employer’s incorrect belief that the employee was engaged in protected political activity.

The plaintiff, Jeffrey Heffernan, was a police officer and a good friend of the mayor’s political opponent. Heffernan drove downtown and picked up a large political sign from the opponent’s campaign office on behalf of his mother who wanted to replace a smaller sign in her yard. Other members of the police department saw Heffernan speaking with some campaign workers. The next day, he was demoted from detective to patrol and given a “walking post” because his supervisors believed that he was overtly involved in the campaign. In fact, he wasn’t; he had simply picked up a sign for his mother. Heffernan sued his employer under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated. The district court found that he had not actually engaged in First Amendment speech, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The Court relied on Waters v. Churchhill, 511 U.S. 661 (1994), where the Court had previously held that a termination based on a mistaken but reasonable belief that the employee’s speech involved personal matters did not support a § 1983 First Amendment claim. Since lack of motive was significant in Waters, it would be equally significant in Heffernan, where the employer was motivated by its mistaken belief that Heffernan had engaged in protected speech. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented, writing that a § 1983 First Amendment retaliation claim requires an actual exercise of protected activity, and that a public employer’s mere attempt to interfere with that right is not enough.

White v. Pauly, 580 U.S. ___ (2017):  Officer who shot and killed armed occupant of a house without first giving a warning did not violate clearly established law on the use of deadly force and therefore was entitled to qualified immunity from suit. 

This case continues the ongoing trend of the U.S. Supreme Court to construe deadly force case law in favor of the police. Several police officers approached a house to investigate a reported road rage incident that had occurred earlier in the evening. Two brothers occupied the house but apparently believed that the police were the persons involved in the road rage incident. The brothers armed themselves and warned the “suspected intruders” that they had guns. One of the brothers stepped out of the back door and fired two warning shots, and the other brother pointed a handgun out a window. The second brother was fatally shot by an officer who was crouched behind a stone wall and failed to give a warning before using deadly force. His estate filed suit under § 1983 claiming use of excessive force. The 10th Circuit affirmed the denial of summary judgment for the police and denied their qualified immunity defense.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The Court began by reaffirming that police officers are entitled to qualified immunity from suit so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. The Court then took the 10th Circuit to task for defining “clearly established law” too generally. In other words, Graham v. Connor and Tennessee v. Garner, which are the seminal cases on the use of force, lay out the law only at general level. Rather, “clearly established law” must be particularized to the facts of the case at hand. Since the case law existing at the time of the shooting did not prohibit a reasonable police from using deadly force under the facts and circumstances faced by this officer, the 10th Circuit should have granted summary judgment for the officer on his qualified immunity defense.

Cases to be decided:

Manuel v. City of Joliet, 2015 U.S. LEXIS 1346 (7th Cir. 2015), cert. granted.

In this case, the Court granted certiorari to decide whether an individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure continues beyond legal process so as to allow a malicious prosecution claim based upon the Fourth Amendment.

Plaintiff Elijah Manuel was arrested for possession with intent to distribute ecstasy. The pills found on him were field tested positive for ecstasy. However, it turned out after lab testing that the pills were not ecstasy, and the State’s Attorney dismissed the charges. Manuel then filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a variety of claims against the arresting officers, most of which were barred by the statute of limitations. In order to get around the limitations defense, he also brought a claim alleging that the officers had maliciously prosecuted him by falsifying the results of the drug tests. The district court dismissed his suit, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, citing Newsome v. McCabe, 256 F.3d 747 (7th Cir. 2001). Newsome forecloses federal malicious prosecution suits because Illinois law already provides an adequate remedy for malicious prosecution. Manuel has argued that every other federal circuit in the country recognized such a claim, and has asked the U.S. Supreme to settle this important issue. The case was argued before the Supreme Court on October 5, 2016, and a decision is expected within the next few months.

Mendez v. County of Los Angeles, 815 F.3d 1178 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. granted.

Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that they were shot by police officers in a backyard shack during a search for a felony suspect regarded as armed and dangerous. The male plaintiff pointed what appeared to be a rifle at the police, but it was in fact a BB gun. Although the district court ruled that the officers used reasonable force, Plaintiffs were awarded $4 million for their injuries under the “provocation doctrine,” which provided that an officer who intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation while committing an independent Fourth Amendment violation (here unlawful entry into the shack) may be liable for his use of deadly force. The 9th Circuit affirmed that ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted review of the case, in part, to decide whether the “provocation doctrine” is consistent with the use of force framework outlined in Graham v. Conner, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). The case should be decided later this year.

Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., 822 F.3d 709 (4th Cir. 2016), cert. granted.

This case involves a transgender student who sued his high school under Title IX and challenged a policy that required students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that matched their assigned gender at birth. The case centers on the effect of a January 2015 opinion letter from the U.S. Department of Education stating that schools must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of G.G., and the school district appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case based on two issues: (1) whether courts should extend deference to the Department’s letter which does not carry the force of law and was adopted in the context of the very dispute in which deference is sought; and, (2) whether, with or without deference to the agency, the Department’s interpretation of Title IX should be given effect. This case is still being briefed and has not yet been set for oral argument. The case should be decided later this year.

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