5 Supreme Court cases the police and the public should know

Some of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases for law enforcement are either misunderstood or entirely unknown by the average American citizen — here’s a précis on five


The average American knows woefully little about the law. Most people do not have any understanding of the distinction (in most jurisdictions) between assault and battery. They confuse what is a robbery and what is a burglary. They don’t know the nuanced difference between kidnapping and false imprisonment.

They might believe that killing someone is murder. Not necessarily. A death caused by another person may have been accidental, or perhaps in self-defense, or possibly a case of manslaughter. And yeah, it might be murder.

This is to be expected. Knowing the law is not their job. That falls on the cops, who have a deep and wide understanding of the law and how each law is to be interpreted and enforced.

Cops have to know their state and Supreme Court law, and be able to articulate how they apply to the decisions they make out on the street.
Cops have to know their state and Supreme Court law, and be able to articulate how they apply to the decisions they make out on the street.

In fact, the sheer volume of legal information police officers are required to know and be able to apply — sometimes in a split second — in the conduct of their job on a day-to-day basis is staggering. Every state and city has their own penal codes which must be committed to memory and utilized on an infinite number of scenarios.

Then there’s case law — court decisions — that govern police conduct. Court decisions may vary in different jurisdictions. Sometimes the Supreme Court decides to settle these differences. For example, Miranda warnings came from a Supreme Court decision — Miranda v. Arizona. Cops have to know their state and Supreme Court law, and be able to articulate how they apply to the decisions they make out on the street.

Here are five United States Supreme Court rulings that most cops know ...and we wish the American people did too.

Use of force

The Supreme Court has ruled on numerous occasions on police use of force as it relates to the Fourth Amendment, but the two most important cases are probably Graham and Garner. Let’s review both.

1. Graham v. Connor

In Graham, the Supreme Court established what has become known as the “objectively reasonable standard” when it held that “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” When it comes to UOF cases, Graham is probably the most important, and yet following a high-profile use of force, this case is almost never mentioned — nor is it likely to be well understood — by the mainstream media.

If we could change one thing in the minds of the press, the public, and the politicians, it would likely be to give them a thorough education on Graham. I put Graham at number one for a reason. It’s time for police to take back the narrative. It is imperative that police go beyond simply including Graham in Citizens Academies. It has to be articulated in press conferences, PSAs, and elsewhere.

2. Tennessee v. Garner

In Garner, the court held that when a police officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, he or she may NOT use deadly force to prevent escape “unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” This decision, which reversed a Tennessee statute which allowed the use of deadly force on any fleeing felon — even those who posed no imminent danger to anyone — has helped inform the creation of UOF policy across the country. Officers who use deadly force on a fleeing felon must be able to articulate probable cause that the subject posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury at the time of the use of force.

When there is media coverage of a video of a cop shooting someone in the back, police executives and experts need to explain why that officer might have reasonably believed that person posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury.

Search and seizure

The Fourth Amendment not only covers use-of-force cases such as those addressed in Graham and Garner. The Fourth Amendment also guarantees the right of the people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures...” Here are a few cases related to the search and seizure of those persons, houses, papers, and effects.

3. Terry v. Ohio

In recent years, there has been much public outcry over what has become known as the practice of “stop and frisk.” People claim that such activities by police are illegal. Not so. If a police officer has a ‘reasonable suspicion’ based on specific articulable facts that a person or persons has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime and “may be armed and presently dangerous,” police may stop them and perform a surface search — a frisk or pat down. The Court has found that the Fourth Amendment is not violated by this conduct — it’s not unreasonable.

Police — in their reports and statements to the media — need to be able to articulate specific facts justifying their stop and frisk under Terry so such law enforcement efforts cannot be mischaracterized as “racial profiling.”

The American people should know that when a cop performs a stop and frisk, it’s for a reason — they’re not doing it arbitrarily.

4. Weeks v. U.S.

In this 1914 case, the Court established the ‘exclusionary rule’ when it held that evidence seized by federal authorities in violation of an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights may not be used against them in a criminal prosecution. Prior to that, the criminal justice system had sought to rely on disciplinary actions by police employers — or civil suits by suspects — as a disincentive for police misconduct.

The Court decided this extra disincentive was necessary as the other disincentives did not appear to be effective. The decision also stated that federal authorities may not enlist the assistance of local police to secure warrantless evidence on their behalf and turn it over to them.

This case was later augmented by the case of Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States in which the Court extended the basic principal of the exclusionary rule to the ‘fruits of the poisonous tree,’ and in Mapp v. Ohio the Court extended both concepts to the states under the due process protection of 14th Fourteenth Amendment.

5. Carroll v. United States

In Carroll, the Court established the ‘automobile exception’ to Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches. In this Prohibition-era case, the Court noted the inherent difference between buildings and vehicles — buildings remain stationary while cars and other vehicles can be moved and hidden before a warrant can be issued. The Court held that if officers have a probable cause that an automobile contains evidence of a crime, the vehicle in question can be searched without a warrant.

Citizens can refuse to give consent to a search of their car, but if the officer has probable cause they can search it without consent. 

Conclusion

Case law on how police operate is continually decided — and revisited. When police operate within their understanding of the United States Constitution — as well as within their agency policies, procedures, training, and tactics — the nation’s highest court largely sides with those officers who are charged with the heroic task of protecting life and property.

A lot of police officers would be very pleased to hear that the public, the press, and the politicians who decry police misconduct had suddenly become well-versed with these and other decisions. But that’s not going to spontaneously happen on its own. Because these important decisions are misunderstood by the media and the public, it would behoove police to change that by educating them.

The above-mentioned cases are just a handful that come to mind for yours truly. There are at least half-dozen others (and in fact, you can find those in the accompanying sidebar article) which have direct bearing on how cops do their jobs. Some decisions are decades old, and some have been issued quite recently. Check out the sidebar and sound off in the comments section below with any cases I missed.

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