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Limits on warrantless car searches, compensation to terrorism victims, veterans benefit disputes

Dividing 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that police may conduct a warrantless vehicle search incident to an arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle or the officers have reasonable belief that “evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”

The decision in Arizona v. Gant (07-542) limits the rule established in New York v. Belton, in which the Court held that “when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident to that arrest, search the passenger compartment.”  The Court affirmed the Arizona Supreme Court ruling for the defendant, Rodney Gant, on whom police found cocaine during an arrest for driving with a suspended license. The state court held that Gant could not have reached his car during the search and posed no safety threat to the officers, making a vehicle search unreasonable under the “reaching-distance rule” of Chimel v. California, as applied to Belton.

Justice Stevens’s opinion for the majority, which was joined by an uncommon coalition of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia, held that stare decisis cannot justify unconstitutional police practice, especially in a case — such as this one — that can clearly be distinguished on its facts from Belton and its progeny.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Scalia disparaged that line of cases as “badly reasoned” with a “fanciful reliance” upon the officer safety rule.  Justice Scalia was clearly the swing vote in the case, explaining that a “4-to-1-to-4 opinion that leaves the governing rule uncertain” would be “unacceptable.”  In his view, the “charade of officer safety” in Belton, Chimel, and Thornton v. United States (extending Belton to all “recent occupants” of a vehicle) should be abandoned in favor of the rule that the majority ultimately adopts in its opinion.

By contrast, the dissenting justices — Justice Breyer, who wrote his own dissenting opinion, and Justice Alito, whose dissent was joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and was joined in part by Justice Breyer — would have adhered rigorously to stare decisis principles to maintain Belton‘s “bright-line rule.”  The dissenters predicted that the Court’s decision will lead to the unnecessary suppression of evidence and confusion by law enforcement officers.

*In Ministry of Defense and Support for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran v. Elahi (07-615), the Court held that the respondent, who sued the Iranian government for the assassination of his brother, could not attach an arbitration award made to Iran to satisfy his judgment because he had waived his right to do so by accepting $2.3 million from the federal government under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (VPA).

The case stems from a 1997 award by the International Court of Arbitration to Iran in its contract dispute with Cubic Defense Systems, a California company.  After Iran sought to enforce the award in a federal court, Elahi — who had obtained a default judgment for $312 million against Iran — sought to attach the award, known as the “Cubic Judgment.”

The Court today rejected Elahi’s efforts to collect the money.  First, it held unanimously that at the time of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the Cubic Judgment was not a “blocked asset” under the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002 (TRIA) — a finding that would be necessary to allow Elahi to attach the judgment, as Iran would otherwise enjoy immunity as a foreign sovereign.  The Court acknowledged that subsequent actions by the executive branch may have “blocked” the Cubic Judgment, but it declined to reach that question because it determined that Elahi had in any event waived his right to attach the Judgment pursuant to the VPA — which, as relevant here,  provides that victims of terrorism receiving compensation agree not to attach “property that is at issue in claims against the United States before an international tribunal.” In his opinion for the majority, Justice Breyer concluded that the Cubic Judgment is precisely such a property.

Justice Kennedy — joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg — filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.  They agreed with the rest of the Court that the Cubic judgment was not a “blocked asset,” but would have held that Elahi did not waive his right to attach that judgment.  In their view, the majority misinterprets the relinquishment provision. The text and intent of the VTVPA and TRIA demonstrate, they reasoned, that Congress intended to broaden the rights of victims of terrorism to “execute on the assets of a state found to have sponsored or assisted in a terrorist act” and to “ensure that other laws do not bar victims’ efforts to enforce judgments against terrorist states.”

* In Shinseki v. Sanders (07-1209), the Court rejected, by a vote of six to three, the Federal Circuit’s “harmless-error” framework for the review of claims decisions by the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Holding that the “harmless-error” framework conflicts with the statutory requirement that the Veterans Court take “due account of the rule of prejudicial error,” the Court – in an opinion by Justice Breyer – concluded that the Veterans Court should apply a harmless-error analysis similar to that applied in other civil cases.  Thus, the majority explained, veterans will bear the burden of demonstrating that the VA’s errors made a substantive difference on the outcome of their claims cases.

Justice Souter filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg. The dissent argued that the framework established by the Federal Circuit – which requires the Veterans Court to presume that a notice error was prejudicial unless the claimant has actual knowledge that cures the defect or is ineligible for benefits as a matter of law – provides the VA with an incentive to perform its obligation to claimants.