The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Civil Rights Cases

Ugly Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure Cases

#1 Ugliest 4th Amendment Search and Seizure Case

Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001)

The police can arrest you and take you to jail for anything that the law prohibits; anything at all, no matter how trivial. 

This case causes most false arrest cases to fail, because the police can usually point to some de minimis crime that you may have committed to justify your arrest for a serious crime. In Atwater, the lady was arrested for violation of the Texas seatbelt statute; the maximum penalty for which is a $50.00 civil fine, and that a person cannot be jail for.

It doesn’t matter what he/she arrested you for, or whether the crime that the police later use to justify your arrest ever entered the mind of the arresting officer, so long as the fictional “reasonably well-trained police officer in the abstract” could have entertained a strong suspicion (i.e. “probable cause”) that you committed a crime; any crime at all; even a very minor traffic infraction. Even if state law prohibits an arrest for a minor traffic infraction, it does not violate the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution for the officer to arrest one for such a minor infraction.

#2 Ugliest 4th Amendment Search and Seizure Case

Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996) 

Traffic stop leads to drug bust in Fort Myers ...It doesn’t matter what crime the police detained or arrested you for, so long as in retrospect, given the facts known to the police officer, whether the fictional reasonable police officer in the abstract would have had probable cause to believe that you committed any crime at all. “The temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe that he has violated the traffic laws does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures, even if a reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective.”

The issue in Whren v. United States was whether crack cocaine found in a car pursuant to a lawful vehicle stop for minor traffic infraction was admissible at Whren’s criminal trial. Whren contended that the officers used the pretense of making a traffic stop to investigate for evidence of other crimes.

The U.S. Supreme Court held the District Court’s finding that the officers had probable cause to believe the defendants had violated the District of Columbia’s traffic code justified the traffic stop. Therefore, as the traffic stop was reasonable/lawful under the 4th amendment, the evidence of the crack cocaine was admissible at Whren’s criminal trial, regardless of whether the arresting police officer’s subjective motivation in stopping the vehicle was to search for drugs, and not the traffic violation; in other words, a pre-text traffic stop.

In other words, it does not matter what the subject intent of a police officer was in stopping or detaining or arresting another, so long as the reasonable police officer in the abstract, could have believed that probable cause existed to detain or arrest another for any crime; even a de minimis traffic infraction. 

Whren v. United States is significant because it puts — front and center — the issue of police using traffic infractions as a reason to stop vehicles in order to discover more serious crimes, and also the dangers involved in racial profiling.  While the Court acknowledges the reality of those issues, it still found that the existence of probable cause for any violation can justify a car stop.

The Greatest Threat to American’s Constitutional Rights; Qualified Immunity:

The Doctrine of Qualified Immunity Precludes Americans from Obtaining Redress for Violation of Their Constitutional Rights in a Number of Settings

Qualified Immunity – General Concepts

The doctrine of qualified immunity protects police officers and other government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982).

Qualified immunity is “an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability.” Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991).

In resolving qualified immunity claims, “[a] court must decide . . . whether the facts [that a plaintiff has] alleged or shown . . . make out a violation of a constitutional right, and . . . whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established’ at the time of defendant’s alleged misconduct.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009). 

A police officer defendant is entitled to qualified immunity unless the conduct “violated a
clearly established constitutional right.” 
Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009).