Fourth Amendment Screwup: Supremes Get the Law Right, but Flunk the Jurisprudence


In a seemingly ho-hum decision today, the Supreme Court made the shocking pronouncement that the states cannot afford their citizens more rights than the bare minimum allowed federally. A complete reversal of 200 years of American jurisprudence. And though it’s buried at the end of the opinion, it’s at the core of this otherwise routine Fourth Amendment case.


Although the Fourth Amendment says the police need a warrant to search your house, most of the time they never get one. We have exceptions to the warrant requirement in circumstances where getting a warrant would be pointless, or where concerns for safety take priority. One such exception is when the police have reason to believe that someone is in immediate need of assistance, because they might be hurt or in danger.

The issue is very simple — did the police have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that someone in the house needed help right away?

The issue is not whether, using perfect hindsight, there really was such an emergency. We only care about whether the police acted reasonably under the circumstances. If it sure looked like someone needed police help, then the fact that nobody actually did need help is irrelevant. The police are allowed to check it out to make sure.

The Supreme Court issued an opinion today, in Michigan v. Fisher, repeating this fairly basic rule. They had to, the majority wrote in a 7-2 per curiam opinion, because the Michigan Court of Appeals mis-applied the law, replacing the rule’s “objective inquiry into appearances with its hindsight determination that there was in fact no emergency.”

What happened was fairly simple. Some concerned citizens directed the police to Fisher’s house, where he was supposedly “going crazy.” Once they got there, it looked like Fisher’s pickup truck had smashed into his fence, and there was blood on the crumpled hood. There was blood inside the truck, and on the door to the house. Three of the windows had been busted from the inside. Looking through a window, the police saw Fisher screaming and throwing things, but they couldn’t see what or whom at. Fisher had a little cut on his hand, and the front door was barricaded with a sofa. The cops asked if Fisher needed medical attention, and he told them to fuck off and get a warrant. One of the cops pushed the front door open a bit, then saw Fisher pointing a shotgun at him through the door’s window. The cop beat a hasty retreat. End of intrusion.

The trial court and the state’s highest court said the gun had to be suppressed, because the police never should have poked in through the front door in the first place.

The Supremes said this sure looked like a reasonable basis to believe someone needed immediate assistance. Fisher clearly acted as if he posed a threat to himself, if not to an unseen target of his violence inside the house. The police couldn’t see everything through the window, so pushing open the front door and peeking in was justifiable. The fact that nobody else ultimately was found to be inside, and that Fisher’s only injury was very minor in actuality, doesn’t change what the police knew at the time.

Stevens and Sotomayor dissented, saying that the Supreme Court essentially usurped the trial court’s role here. The Supremes weren’t there to assess the evidence during the hearing, so it was improper for them to say the trial court got the facts wrong. That’s not a bad argument. But that’s not really what the Supremes were doing here. They weren’t saying the court got the facts wrong — in fact, everyone pretty much agreed on the relevant facts — all they were saying is the Michigan Court of Appeals got the law wrong. And it certainly is the Supreme Court’s job to ensure that the law is being applied correctly.

What the Supreme Court did get wrong (though Stevens and Sotomayor missed it) is in saying that the Michigan court erred in holding the police to a higher standard than federal Fourth Amendment law requires. This is a hugely significant error of jurisprudence, and it should not go unremarked-upon.

The rights espoused in the federal Constitution are not the only rights that American citizens may have. They are nothing more than a minimum, a floor below which no government may go. But the states have their own constitutions, and are permitted to grant extra rights and freedoms to their citizens.

For example, on this same Fourth Amendment topic, the most important recent Supreme Court case is Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006), which said that the federal Constitution does not forbid the police to have had an ulterior motive. So long as the police had objectively reasonable grounds to believe that an emergency was at hand, the federal Fourth Amendment does not care whether the police wanted to see if there was any contraband there as well. It’s like the Whren case, saying that so long as the cops had probable cause in the first place, the federal Constitution doesn’t care whether the stop was really just a pretext so the cops could do something else. This is consistent federal law.

But the states are free to adopt the Brigham City rule or not, as they see fit. New York, for example, hasn’t gotten around to making that call yet. Its rule under People v. Mitchell, 39 N.Y.2d 173 (1976) imposes a requirement that the so-called emergency search not be a pretext for something else. Brigham City, if adopted, would do away with that requirement. But for the moment, it is still New York law, under the New York constitution.

The same goes here. Michigan’s highest court is the final arbiter of what the Michigan constitution requires. And if they say that the citizens of Michigan are entitled to greater protections from police intrusion than are afforded by the federal minimums, then the Supreme Court has no place saying otherwise.

And yet that is precisely what the Supremes have done here. The opinion is per curiam, but it reads as if Roberts wrote it. But whoever wrote it screwed up. They reversed because “the Michigan Court of Appeals required more than what the Fourth Amendment demands.” That is not grounds for reversal. Period. For the Supremes to even think that it is reflects a disturbing antifederalist, Hamiltonian, big-government, centralized-government arrogance that is totally contrary to basic principles of American jurisprudence.

Right result, wrong reason. Bad decision.

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1 Response

  1. December 9, 2009

    […] the original post:  Fourth Amendment Screwup: Supremes Get the Law Right, but Flunk … By admin | category: criminal attorney michigan | tags: appeals, court, curiam-opinion, […]

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