Fourth and two

On July 7, 2004, Bennie Herring was arrested in New Brockton, Ala. on charges of methamphetamine possession and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, both federal offenses. A jury found him guilty on both counts and sentenced him to 27 months in prison. On Aug. 25, 1999, Rodney Gant was arrested in Tucson, Ariz. for possession of a narcotic drug for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia, both felonies. He was convicted by an Arizona jury on both counts. These two cases have a lot in common. Both involved criminal suspects with previous records. A search of each suspect turned up both weapons and drugs. In both cases, the critical facts are largely uncontested. And, depending on who you ask, both were illegally arrested by police officers acting in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Next Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in both of these cases. Their final decision will ultimately determine whether law enforcement officials acted in violation of the U.S. Constitution, and will set the standard for many future police searches and seizures to come. The Fourth Amendment states that âÄúThe right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.âÄù Simple enough, right? Well, courts have been deciding Fourth Amendment cases for a few hundred years now, and plenty of judges still disagree on what words like âÄúunreasonableâÄù and âÄúprobable causeâÄù actually mean. In HerringâÄôs case, everything started out innocently enough. He actually drove his pickup to the Coffee County SheriffâÄôs office himself that fateful July day to check on another one of his trucks, which happened to be impounded in the sheriffâÄôs lot. While Herring was at the office, Coffee County Investigator Mark Anderson arrived at work. Anderson knew Herring, and something about Herring must have smelled guilty that day. Anderson had the police clerk check the local database for any outstanding warrants on Herring. There were none. Not easily discouraged, Anderson had the clerk call the neighboring sheriffâÄôs office in Dale County to see if Herring had any pending warrants there. The Dale County clerk checked her database and told AndersonâÄôs clerk that, sure enough, there was an active warrant for HerringâÄôs arrest. Armed with this information, Anderson and a deputy hurried out the door and were on HerringâÄôs tail as he left the sheriffâÄôs office. They pulled him over and arrested him pursuant to the Dale County warrant, searched him and his truck and found meth in HerringâÄôs pocket and a pistol under his front seat. The only problem was that, well, it turns out there was no Dale County warrant. HerringâÄôs warrant had been recalled and was no longer valid. Within 10-15 minutes of the initial call, Dale CountyâÄôs clerk was back on the phone with Coffee County, trying in vain to correct her mistake. But it was too late. Herring was in jail, and the cops had everything they needed for conviction. At his trial, Herring argued that the condemning evidence should be thrown out since it wasnâÄôt made pursuant to a valid warrant. He said it was by its very nature âÄúunreasonableâÄù and a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The sheriffâÄôs department disagreed, and argued that they acted with only the purest intentions. After all, they didnâÄôt know that there wasnâÄôt a valid warrant. They argued that the evidence they seized should still count. The district court sided with the cops and kept the evidence. So did the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court will have the final word on just how far good intentions go when it comes to constitutional interpretation. Then thereâÄôs Rodney Gant. Gant had spoken with Tucson police at a local residence earlier on the day of his arrest and, as with Herring, something must have smelled fishy. The officers ran a record check on Gant and, sure enough, discovered that he had an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license. The police returned to the house later in the day, and while they were there Gant drove up in his car and parked in the driveway. Within minutes, Gant had been arrested, handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car for his alleged misdeeds. After Gant was locked in the patrol car, the officers searched his vehicle and found a weapon and a plastic baggie of cocaine. They did not have a warrant, and claimed to have searched the car for âÄúofficer safety reasons.âÄù Gant argued that the search of his vehicle after he had been arrested and placed in a patrol car was unreasonable. A warrantless search, he argued, is only reasonable insofar as it applies to areas of an automobile where an arrestee might immediately gain possession of a weapon or destroy evidence. The state of Arizona argues that the Supreme Court has established a âÄúbright lineâÄù rule in previous cases and should reemphasize the rule that law enforcement officers should always be allowed, under the Fourth Amendment, to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle subsequent to any arrest, regardless of officer safety concerns. Twenty-five states, including Minnesota, have together filed a brief supporting Arizona in this case. Depending on how these cases are decided, they will either give arresting officers a little bit more power, or take a little bit away. Depending on your personal experience with law enforcement, you probably agree with one view or another. Both of these cases involve the unsavory possibility of freeing apparent criminals caught âÄúred-handed,âÄù solely because of a legal technicality. On the other hand, these cases also offer an opportunity to place a sensible check on the fallible instincts of law enforcement officials, and an opportunity to clarify that, even when their intuition is right. Police operate within a legal system grounded in an indisputable presumption of innocence. Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]