Thursday, May 8, 2014

Constitutional Issues

Most of the decisions I make are guided by statutes and cases from the State of Minnesota.  Rarely have I had to refer to decisions of the United States Supreme Court to guide my deliberations.  We just don’t have those big, Constitutional issues before us in State District Court very often.

I did have a case, however, where there was no state law and I needed to rely on a US Supreme Court decision.  The facts of the case were quite interesting:  An alarm went off after midnight at a business, indicating a break-in.  Numerous squad cars responded.  While several officers investigated at the scene, several others fanned out in the surrounding area to try to locate witnesses or suspects.

A car with three men inside was stopped not far from the business.  They could not give a reasonable explanation why they were in the area at that time of night, so were each put in the backseat of a separate squad car until the Investigator could arrive on the scene to question them.  This process took over an hour.

About 45 minutes into the wait, the officers with the suspects received a call from the officers at the scene:  sneaker prints had been found in the dust near the building.  Did the suspects have sneakers?  In fact, they did.  The sneakers were taken from the suspects without their consent and the tread on the sneakers closely resembled the tracks near the business.

The case came before me on the defendants’ motions to suppress the sneakers, that is, not allow them to be shown to the jury, because they were illegally taken by the officers.

This is one of those technical, but very important areas of the law.  Were the suspects under arrest or merely detained when the shoes were seized?  The United States Supreme Court said there is no hard and fast rule as to how much time passed before a detention turned into an arrest.  So, I held that the detention amounted to an arrest and the seizure of the shoes as unconstitutional – the shoes would not be admitted into evidence. 

The prosecutor appealed my decision, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.  One of my colleagues commented after the decision came down, “Well, Judge McCarthy, I see the Court of Appeals has joined you in error!”  Turns out, he was right!  The Minnesota Supreme Court took the case and said my interpretation of the law was not correct.  The shoes would be received in evidence and the matter was sent back to the District Court for trial (before a different judge).

At the trial, with the shoes and other evidence presented, the three defendants were found not guilty.  A most interesting outcome to a most interesting case.

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Next Week:  Epitaphs