The U.S. Supreme Court's 7-2 ruling this week clarifying for the first time what "seizure" means under the Fourth Amendment already is being bemoaned by some as an infringement of the rights of accused persons. Instead, the decision is just common sense.
Justices decided that when police give chase to a fleeing person, even though they have no knowledge or "probable cause" that a crime has been committed, any evidence discarded during the chase can be used in court.When a person flees at the mere sight of police, that would seem to be enough to raise the suspicion or give "probable cause" that something is wrong. But, interestingly, the high court did not take that view.
Instead, the Supreme Court narrowed its findings to what is meant by the term "seizure." The justices said that chasing someone is not the same thing as seizing them. They ruled that seizure occurs only when a person is grabbed by a police officer or otherwise is in police custody or control.
The distinction is important when it comes to acquiring evidence.
The Supreme Court case involved a common situation. It centered on a California teen who, among others, ran away at the sight of police approaching a group gathered around a parked car. The officers thought a drug deal might be taking place.
Officers pursued on foot and during the chase the suspect threw away an object that turned out to be a "rock" of crack cocaine. A California appeals court threw out the evidence, saying it had been obtained by an unreasonable seizure since police had no prior indication that a crime had been committed.
But the Supreme Court ruling said, sensibly enough, that a fleeing person cannot be said to be seized just because police yell "Stop" and the person continues to run away. That being the case, any evidence discarded by the fleeing person is fair game and can be used in court.
The Supreme Court decision essentially upholds a practice already used by most Utah law enforcement agencies.
While the Supreme Court ruling is helpful to police by clarifying what is meant by seizure, it hardly takes away the rights of suspects.
In fact, in an ironic twist acknowledged by the original California court, if the fleeing youth had held onto the cocaine and still had it in his possession when tackled by police, it could not have been used as evidence against him because there was no probable cause for a search and seizure. But throwing the cocaine away made it admissible evidence. In other words, there's still a big gap between the dictates of law and the canons of common sense.