One of the things about the law that may seem paradoxical is just how stretchy the fabric of justice can be. The language of a given law does not change, but the way it is applied does not stay static. Over time, new challenges may be brought and different courts may come to different interpretations. Until a case makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court and the justices issue a decision, it isn’t safe to say what the law of the land is.
This gets proved time and again and was once more in connection with an issue that we raised some time ago in an article on this site. The piece offered a touch of speculation about how police practices of search warrant detentions might be significantly changed as the result of a case out of New York, depending on how the justices decided. As it turns out, the rules did get changed.
As we observed at the time, the issue before the court was whether police violated constitutional guarantees against illegal search and seizure in the way they handled the detention of a man during the execution of a search warrant of his apartment in 2005.
Officers had obtained the warrant properly. Before it was executed, though, detectives saw two men leave the building and drive away. The detectives followed but did not pull the suspect vehicle over until they were about a mile from the apartment. Once stopped, they told the two men they were being detained pending the outcome of the search.
The man whose apartment had been searched ended up being convicted of drug and weapons crime charges based on evidence found in the residence.
The defense had argued at trial and on initial appeal that the detention was illegal because it didn’t happen in the “immediate vicinity” of the search area. The lower courts rejected the argument, but last year, as was reported by The New York Times, the Supreme Court reversed those rulings.
On a 6-3 vote, the court said that detentions of individuals that aren’t done in the immediate vicinity of the search for the purpose of keeping search teams safe “resemble a full-fledged arrest,” and must be handled as such.
What this shows is that a successful criminal defense isn’t just about knowing how the law reads but how it could be interpreted in a way that best protects a defendant.