26 July 2004

United States v. Holmes (4th Cir)

Subjects: (1) Do the police have to determine that the persons they have detained are the ones they are looking for before they search the vehicle the people were driving in?

No. The fact that the persons detained were not the people the police were looking for is irrelevant. Officer safety conquers all and the officers can search the car to check for other dangerous occupants. But wait, that doesn't exactly cover the officers' actions in searching the console and glove compartment. Maybe they suspected the involvement of the dreaded Lilliputian mafia.1 Naawww. Gotta be a better explanation than that. Got it! The police are worried that if they let these people go - who are not even wanted and are not the people the police are looking for - the guys would have access to any weapons which might be in the car.

[comment] Yeah, that's a great bit of reasoning. It ranks right up there with Anselm's best. Officers will (and should) have officer safety concerns each and every time they stop a car. By this case's reasoning, if an officer pulls you out of the car but does not attempt to ascertain who you are that officer can search your car because we could all be dangerous felons. And it's so hard to look at ID's and wait those "5-15 minutes" for a criminal record. 2

1 Yes, I know. There is no such thing as the Lilliputian mafia. They are just family members, acquaintances, and businessmen meeting and interacting at social clubs for the purpose of camaraderie and friendship. The fact that some rogue elements in this community have, in the past, undertaken illegal activities should not lead us to portray all of these hardworking businessmen as criminals.

2 Funny. I've stood in several prosecutor's offices and watched these records get pulled up. It never seems to take more than a minute or so. But I guess law enforcement is still using those trusty old Apple IIe's with 300 baud modems.

(2) Can people handcuffed, locked in the back of a police car, and surrounded by police be a threat to get back to their car and get any weapons therein?

Yes. If the people have no warrants and are not known to have broken any laws the police have to let them go. Thereafter, these citizens against whom the police have no evidence would be allowed back in their car. These citizens against whom the police have no evidence then would have access to possible weapons which the officers have no proof exist.

[comment] Innocent people and imagined weapons. Always a good basis for a search. Who needs the 4th Amendment anyway?

(3) Was there sufficient indicia that the two guys in this case were dangerous?

"Admittedly, the suspicion of danger dissipated after the officers discovered that the two suspects were [not the person they were looking for]. But by that time the search had already been completed, and was not retroactively invalidated by the officers' subsequent discovery."

[comment] Translation: No, but we're going to let the officers get away with this anyway because they didn't investigate properly.

[overall comment] This is a Thornton search gone bad. The police just assumed that they had at least one of the guys they were after.3 They didn't.

Not ascertaining who these guys were and if there was any reason to arrest or hold them should have invalidated the search. Since no bad act or warrant was attributed to either at the time there was nothing - absolutely nothing - upon which to justify the search for an imagined weapon.

This is a case of 20/20 hindsight and hard facts making bad law. We all know that Holmes is a bad guy and that he was the guy the police should have been looking for. Law enforcement screwed up and our rights take a beating as the court covers for it rather than stepping up.

3 Although even that premise seems a little dicey. Judge Luttig doth protest too much in his explanation of the facts. However, I do not have the transcript so I must, perforce, accept his explanation at face value.

The case is here.

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