Supreme Court decision in federal criminal case: Court sides with Defendant and says that police cannot search person who left scene prior to execution of search warrant

February 20, 2013 by Paul Kish

Because we do lots of federal criminal cases, many of them here in Atlanta and throughout Georgia, Alabama and Florida, we therefore pay close attention to such matters when they work their way to the United States Supreme Court. One such case is Bailey v. United States, a situation we discussed in an earlier on this blog. Yesterday, in a 6-3 decision written by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court agreed with the defense position, holding that when the police are at a location to execute a search warrant, the police do not have the right to stop and then search a person who already left the premises just before they began searching.

The issue in Bailey stems from a prior ruling issued thirty-one years ago, Michigan v. Summers. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that officers executing a search warrant for contraband may detain the occupants of the premises while the search is conducted. However, over the past three decades, there has been a big conflict among federal courts of appeals and state courts of last resort about whether the rule of Summers permits detaining individual who has left the immediate vicinity of the premises before the warrant is executed.

So, the Court yesterday cleared up the conflict in the case of Chunon Bailey. The police had a search warrant for an apartment. While staking it out before executing the warrant, and officers noticed two men leaving the apartment. They followed Mr. Bailey from the apartment to be searched and detained him 0.7 miles away. During the detention, the officers discovered a key to the apartment on Bailey’s person, and he made incriminating statements that linked him to the apartment. The cops then haul everybody back to the apartment, where the search was in progress. In the course of the search, law enforcement located guns and drugs, and Mr. Bailey was later charged with various federal offenses. The federal district court denied Bailey’s motion to suppress the fruits of his detention, and the key was the main evidence used at trial to support the prosecution's theory that Bailey owned the guns and drugs in the apartment. It must have been a close case, for the docket shows the jury deliberated over the course of three days. However, Bailey was convicted, and based on his extensive prior record, got a 30-year sentence. On appeal he again argued that the police violated the Fourth Amendment when they stopped him many blocks away from the apartment. The Court of Appeals sided with the Government.

In reversing the court of appeals, the Supreme Court held that the rule in Summers is limited to the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched and does not apply here, where Bailey was stopped almost a mile away. The Summers rule permits officers to detain occupants even when there is no particular suspicion that an individual is involved in criminal activity or poses a specific danger to the officers. Detention is permitted because the character of the additional intrusion caused by detention is slight and because the justifications for detention are substantial. Here, however, Bailey left the apartment before the search began and was detained nearly a mile away. None of the three law enforcement interests identified in Summers applies with the same or similar force to the detention of recent occupants beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched. Limiting the rule in Summers to searches of current occupants is justified by the interests in executing a safe and efficient search, the decision to detain must be acted upon at the scene of thesearch and not at a later time in a more remote place.

This is a good decision, one which protects individual liberties while also allowing law enforcement to safely execute search warrants. We hope the Supreme Court continues to recognize that we all win in such cases.