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Analysis: More power for police, more immunity for prosecutors


In opinions so spare that the Supreme Court did not labor long to produce them, the Justices on Monday unanimously expanded the control that police can exercise at the scene of roadside traffic stops, and, again without dissent, pushed up the chain-of-command in prosecutors’ offices the protection of total immunity to liability for decisions made in preparing criminal cases for trial.  The first ruling was an enlargement of “stop and frisk” authority, the second was a reinterpretation of when prosecutors’ supervisors do administrative tasks.

The Court has returned often to the constitutional environment that prevails along the nation’s streets and highways when police officers see a traffic violation in progress, and decide to pull over the offending vehicle.  In a series of rulings, dating back nearly four decades, it has slowly built up a complex array of Fourth Amendment concepts, most of which have added to the officers’ authority “to control the scene,” as the Court put it again on Monday in further expanding that power.

That expansion has been based, in large part, on the Court’s concern that there is a considerable risk that any traffic stop could quickly escalate into “a violent encounter,” because more crime may actually be afoot than merely a violation of traffic laws, and driver or passengers may want to prevent its detection.  That was the rationale the Court used again in deciding Arizona v. Johnson (07-1122).

With fewer than four full pages of analysis in a nine-page opinion, the Court decided that police may order a passenger out of a stopped vehicle, and then conduct a “pat-down search” (a frisk) if they have reason to believe that the rider may be armed and dangerous.  (In this particular case, it was assumed that the officer involved had such a reason, but that could be tested when the case returns to Arizona state courts.)

The case involved a gang patrol by officers who were checking out a suspect neighborhood in Tucson.  When a car passed, one officer ran a check on the license plate, and discovedred that the insurance on that vehicle had been suspended.  So, while there was no suspicion of any other crime, the officers stopped the vehicle.  Officer Maria Trevizo engaged the back-seat passenger, Lemon Montrea Johnson, in conversation, and began talking with him after noticing he was wearing what she considered to be something of a gang emblem, a blue bandanna.

She learned he was from the town of Eloy, the site of prominent gang activity, and that he had done time on a burglary conviction.  She ordered him out of the car, and frisked him, finding a gun located near his waist.  She then handcuffed him.  He was charged with illegal gun posesssion (among other offenses), and was convicted on that charge.  An Arizona appeals court threw out the conviction, finding that Officer Trevizo had no right to pat-down passenger Johnson, since she had no reason to believe he had committed any crime.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ran over the Court’s past precedents dating back to Terry v. Ohio in 1968, and concluded that the “combined thrust” of the past rulings was that officers who conduct routine traffic stops may perform a frisk of a driver and any passenger if they had “reasonable suspicion that they may be armed and dangerous.”   The opinion then went on to conclude that the principle would now be made clearcut Fourth Amendment law.

If the traffic stop is not unduly prolonged by search activity following the initial stop, the opinion said, it has not been concluded for Fourth Amendment purposes until the police have completed exercising control of the scene — including a frisk when they believe someone in the vehicle may be armed and dangerous.

The Court’s new ruling on prosecutorial immunity to damage lawsuits that challenge actions they take in preparing cases for trial continued a process that began in 1976, in Imbler v. Pachtman.  In that decision, the Court said that, just as judges, jurors and legislators need absolute immunity to damages liability in order to perform their duties without harassing litigation against them, so do prosecutors.

Still, the Court said in Imbler that total immunity would not be available if a prosecutor was not engaged in duties directly related to prosecution of crimes in court, but rather was carrying on some kind of “administrative” task.   It was to this realm of prosecutorial duties that the Court on Monday extended new immunity.

The case of Van de Kamp v. Goldstein (07-854) involved a plea to the Court by a former chief prosecutor in Los Angeles, John Van de Kamp, and his chief deputy, Curt Livesay.  They were seeking to head off a civil rights damages lawsuit by a man who had been prosecuted and convicted of murder in 1980.   That conviction had been based in part upon the testimony of a jailhouse informant alleging a confession to the murder by Thomas Lee Goldstein.

After Goldstein served 24 years in prison, he was released based upon a court finding that the jailhouse informant had been given favorable treatment for his information, but that fact was never shared — as it should have been — with Goldstein’s defense lawyer.  Goldstein then brought his civil rights lawsuit, claiming that some prosecutors knew about the informant’s favorable treatment, but the word did not get passed to defense counsel, mainly because the leaders of the office failed to train line prosecutors to share such information, failed to supervise the line attorneys, and failed to create a system for retaining and sharing information about informants.

The two top prosecutors lost their bid for immunity in the Ninth Circuit Court, which concluded that the duties involved in Goldstein’s challenge were administrative, not prosecutorial as such.

Overturning that result Monday, the Court, in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, spent only about half of a 12-page opinion analyzing the immunity issue, but in the course of doing so brought under legal protection all of the tasks that Van de Kamp and Livesay allegedly failed to perform adequately as supervisors.  The Court thus concluded that training, supervision and information-sharing are not “administrative,” in the sense of lacking legal immunity, when they are found to be “directly connected with the conduct of a trial.”

While conceding that training, supervision or information-management tasks for supervisors might sometimes be lacking in immunity from damages liability, the Court interpreted the claimed lapses in Goldstein’s case to be shielded because they were keyed to an error by the line prosecutor.  “The types of activities on which Goldstein’s claims focus necessarily require legal knowledge and the exercise of related discretion, e.g., in determining what information should be included in the training or the supervision or the information-system management.”

Summing up, Breyer wrote that, when a civil rights lawsuit claims “that a prosecutor’s management of a trial-related information system is responsible for a constitutional error at [a] particular trial, the prosecutor responsible for the system enjoys absolute immunity just as would the prosecutor who handled the particular trial itself.”