Bright-Line Rule Spotlights Sham of Rationale

Nothing is easier to apply than a bright-line rule. Just plug in the facts and out comes the conclusion. No muss, no fuss.

But therein lies the danger of the bright-line rule. Its very ease of application creates a danger that courts will expand its use to new and very different cases. And you may see the rule begin to be applied to fact situations bearing little relation to the original rationale for the rule.

With apologies to Manfred Mann, it is easy for courts to be "blinded by the bright."

A case in point is the 4th District Appellate Court's recent decision in People v. Miller, 820 N.E.2d 1216 (2004), petition for leave to appeal denied March 30.

Both a Quincy police officer and a drug investigator with the Illinois Drug Task Force observed Russell Miller -- whom they intriguingly described as a "person of interest" -- driving his Jeep on an April afternoon. They ran a warrant check and discovered that Miller was subject to a civil body attachment for failure to appear in court in a divorce matter. They followed Miller as he pulled his Jeep into a driveway across the street from a friend's home, using their car to block Miller's in the driveway.

Miller exited his car and locked it. The police officer then approached Miller and told him he was under arrest for failure to appear in court. He handcuffed Miller, patted him down and found no weapons or contraband.

Miller was then placed in another squad car that had just arrived on the scene. Miller asked if he could give his car keys to his friend who lived across the street. The police refused, took the keys, and then unlocked and searched the car without Miler's permission. The police found contraband drugs in the car, and Miller was charged with possession of a controlled substance.

Miller's pretrial motion to suppress was denied, and he was subsequently convicted.

Miller was confronted with the bright-line rule of New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981). Prior to Belton, the Supreme Court had held that the police always had the right to make a full search of anyone they arrested. U.S. v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973). The rationale for this full search was the need both to disarm the arrestee and to recover any evidence in his possession. In Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), the court held that a search incident to arrest should include not only the arrestee's person but also the area "within his immediate control."

Belton concerned a related issue: What was the area of "immediate control" when the arrestee was the occupant of an automobile? Belton held that the search of such an arrestee should include not only his person but also the entire passenger compartment of the car, including all containers.

(The Illinois Supreme Court adopted the Belton rule in People v. Bailey, 159 Ill.2d 498 (1994)).

Again, the rationale was the protection of the police and the need to preserve evidence. Belton emphasized that it was the fact of the arrest alone that justified this search of the vehicle; the police did not have to provide reasons why this particular search might recover either weapons or evidence. Belton is thus the noonday sun of bright-line rules.

Miller contended that Belton had no application to his case. Belton concerned an arrest for a crime. Miller, on the other hand, was arrested on a civil warrant. He argued that the rationale of Belton -- protection of the officer and search for evidence -- had no applicability to an arrest on a civil warrant.

The 4th District disagreed. Citing Illinois precedent, the court held that it is irrelevant whether the arrest is for a criminal offense or a civil warrant, for "The key is custody, not the underlying reason for it." At 1220.

Justice Thomas R. Appleton dissented. He complained that the problem with a bright-line rule is that "rather than illuminating a constitutional principle, it is used like a laser to carve out greater and greater exceptions to the existence of personal liberty." At 1221. He argued that Belton was inapplicable because the police did not arrest Miller until he was out of the car and had already locked the doors. Appleton contended that to extend Belton to this situation would be completely contrary to Belton's rationale.

Yet the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected this argument last May in Thornton v. U.S., 541 U.S. 615 (2004). The Supreme Court held that the Belton rule applied even when the police do not first make contact with the arrestee until after he has left the vehicle. So long as the arrestee was a "recent occupant" of the vehicle, the officer may search the passenger compartment incident to the arrest.

No surprise -- the court simply made Belton's bright line a little brighter.

But the most interesting opinion in Thornton was Justice Antonin Scalia's, which concurred only in the judgment. Scalia took issue with Belton's rationale that the search of the vehicle was for the officer's protection. He observed that this was a fiction, for police invariably handcuffed the arrestee before searching him and therefore the arrestee no longer posed a danger.

Scalia asked the court to at last be honest about why it allowed Belton searches: that the reason had nothing to do with officer safety and everything to do with searches for relevant evidence. Thus, he would allow a Belton search incident to arrest, but only if the police could establish that it was reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.

Scalia's opinion was joined by only one other member of the court: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Yet it provides a lens through which the real problems of the Miller case can be seen.

We have no idea why the officer and the drug investigator considered Miller to be a "person of interest." Even if this were racially motivated, the Supreme Court has told us that this is irrelevant under the Fourth Amendment. Whren v. U.S., 517 U.S. 806 (1996). Apparently the officers were unable to observe even one minor traffic offense that would justify a stop, and instead had to rely on a civil body attachment.

The trial judge at the suppression hearing explicitly found that "the officers made no pretense: they were searching for contraband and using the custodial arrest to do so." At 1218.

Scalia's opinion would label what occurred in Miller for what it really was: nothing more than a sham.

The 4th District used the Belton bright-line rule to justify a fishing expedition based on a mere hunch.

Scalia and Ginsburg, on the other hand, would hold that the police failed to establish that any evidence related to the civil arrest could be recovered through a search of the car. Therefore, they would suppress the evidence and reverse Miller's conviction.

Federal courts are not free to reject the holding of a majority on the Supreme Court and to independently adopt the views of only two justices. See U.S. v Usife, 398 F.3d 1143 (9th Cir. 2005) (explaining that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was legally bound both to reject the views of Scalia and Ginsburg and to follow the majority in Thornton). But Illinois, of course, is free to adopt the Scalia-Ginsburg view by finding that Article I, section 6, of the Illinois Constitution provides more protection in the area of search and seizure than the U.S. Supreme Court's reading of the Fourth Amendment in Belton and Thornton.

Of course, to do this the Illinois Supreme Court would have to reconsider its inane reliance on the "lockstep doctrine." See People v. Tisler, 103 Ill.2d 226 (1984) (announcing that the U.S. Supreme Court's Fourth Amendment rulings also define the scope of Article I, section 6, of the Illinois Constitution). But the court could not pick a better opportunity to reject lockstep than by following the lead of Scalia and Ginsburg in reining in Belton and Thornton.