The Supreme Court ruled today in a Washington state case that police have authority to arrest suspects on charges that later fall apart, so long as officers had a second, valid reason for the detention.
WASHINGTON The Supreme Court ruled today in a Washington state case that police have authority to arrest suspects on charges that later fall apart, so long as officers had a second, valid reason for the detention.
The 8-0 ruling sets aside a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Jerome Alford. Two Washington State Patrol officers had arrested him for tape recording their conversation during a traffic stop in November 1997.
During the traffic stop, Alford told the officers he had case law showing the taping was legal, but police arrested him anyway partly for separate reasons, which they did not tell him, that he appeared to be impersonating a police officer.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the arrest was improper, ruling that the separate charges were not sufficiently “closely related” to the initial offense for which he was arrested. But in an opinion today by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court disagreed.
Scalia reasoned that the Fourth Amendment holds an arrest to be lawful if it was “reasonable” given all the facts at the time. Thus, even though officers were wrong about the tape-recording charge, the suspicious circumstances in which he appeared to be impersonating an officer could justify the arrest, he said.
Scalia also noted that a ruling to the contrary would deter officers from providing reasons for their arrest, as they did in Alford’s case, to avoid having their grounds challenged later if they were proved wrong. Under Washington state law, officers are not required to state the reasons for an arrest.
“A predictable consequence … is not … that officers will cease making sham arrests on the hope that such arrests will later be validated, but rather that officers will cease providing reasons for arrest,” Scalia wrote.
Washington police said they became suspicious one night in 1997 after noticing Alford’s car stopped behind a disabled vehicle on the highway. Alford said he was providing help and then hastily left, but officers tracked him down after they learned he had flashing headlights on his car as is typical of police vehicles.
After noticing that Alford was listening to a police band radio and had a scanner, the officers arrested him on privacy charges after discovering he was recording their conversation.
The privacy charge was later dismissed on grounds that conversations between police and highway motorists are not private.
Today’s ruling sends the case back to the 9th Circuit to determine whether police had probable cause to arrest Alford on charges of impersonating an officer.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who did not attend oral arguments for the November case, did not take part in the decision.
The case is Devenpeck v. Alford, 03-710.