February 19, 2013

High court limits detention powers in searches

Mark Sherman / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has limited the power of police to detain people who are not at home when their residence is to be searched.

By a 6-3 vote Tuesday, the justices sided with a Long Island, N.Y., man who was picked up about three-quarters of a mile away from his apartment as police searched it for a gun.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his opinion for the court's majority that the authority of police to detain people found at home during a search authorized by a warrant is limited to the immediate vicinity of the premises. He said that concern for officer safety diminishes the farther away from the home the detention occurs.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have upheld lower court rulings in favor of the police "in light of the risks of flight, of evidence destruction, and of human injury present in this and similar cases." Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined Breyer's dissent.

The Fourth Amendment usually requires police to strongly suspect an individual has committed a crime before he can be detained. But the court in 1981 ruled in Michigan v. Summers that police could detain people without suspicion during a search to keep them from doing harm to officers, keep them from fleeing and allowing them to, for example, open a door instead of having the police bash it in.

In this case, Chunon Bailey, also known by the alias of Polo, left his basement apartment in Wyandanch, N.Y., shortly before police began their search. Unaware of the impending search, Bailey and another man got into Bailey's black Lexus and drove away, apparently to get the friend home by 10 p.m. to comply with a condition of his parole.

Officers followed in an unmarked car and stopped the Lexus a few minutes later. Bailey and his friend were handcuffed and taken back to the apartment where, by then, police had found a gun and drugs.

Bailey tried and failed to get courts to throw out anything he said to police when he was stopped and also a key to the apartment police found when they patted him down. He was found guilty of cocaine possession and other crimes and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Kennedy said none of the concerns present in the court's 1981 case justified Bailey's detention. "The categorical authority to detain incident to the execution of a search warrant must be limited to the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched," he said. To do otherwise gives the police too much discretion, Kennedy said.

But the ruling may not let Bailey off the hook entirely. Kennedy said the government still can argue that another rationale made the decision to stop and detain Bailey legal. The justices ordered the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to take a new look at Bailey's case.

The case is Bailey v. U.S., 11-770.

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