WASHINGTON -- Police chases -- a tactic that may be almost as common in real police work as on television cop shows -- have had a somewhat uncertain status under the Constitution, but the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to clear it up.
In a brief order, the court said it would take up a test case from California that is expected to lead to a major ruling on the scope of police authority to pursue suspects on foot, by car or other means and stop them.
A key outcome of the case could be a definition of the point at which the chase itself turns into a "seizure" -- that is, the point at which the fleeing individual starts to understand that he or she should not continue fleeing.
If a police seizure does occur, and the police had no reliable evidence at the time that a crime had occurred or was in progress, any evidence that turns up as a result of the seizure must be barred from the case.
A California appeals court ruled in December that, even if police do not physically restrain a person, a chase can amount to a seizure if the police action cuts off a fleeing suspect and results in a head-on "confrontation." The suspect is effectively stopped, for constitutional purposes, when he notices an officer coming directly at him.
Since such a confrontation is a "seizure," the state court went on, police may not use as evidence anything that the suspect may have thrown away as a result of that confrontation. In the case that led to that ruling, the state court barred police from using as evidence 15 chunks of cocaine tossed away by the fleeing suspect and $130 in cash found on the suspect.
California officials, in taking the case to the Supreme Court, urged the justices to lay down the flat rule that police do not "seize" an individual during any police chase or pursuit unless the officers physically restrain the person.
The case is California vs. Hodari (No. 89-1632).
Another California case put on the court's decision docket yesterday may help settle another unresolved issue about police conduct: the extent to which officers may search containers they find inside a car when they are looking inside the auto without a warrant.
A state court ruled last December that, if police have some reason to believe they will find something illegal in a specific container inside a car, they may seize the container, but may not open it unless they first get a warrant.
California officials are also appealing that issue, in a case involving marijuana found in a brown lunch bag that police saw a suspect put into the trunk of a car. That case is California vs. Acevedo (No. 89-1690).
The court also granted review of another criminal case, one that could provide an opening for the justices to overturn a 3-year-old ruling in a Maryland case against discussion in death penalty cases of the impact that a murder had on the victim's family.
Under that 1987 decision, prosecutors are barred from telling jurors, in an attempt to persuade them to impose a death sentence, about how the family of the victim reacted to the murder. Ohio's Supreme Court ruled last May that that decision means that, even if the killer knew the victim's family, and thus was well aware of how the death would traumatize them, the evidence of family impact may not be offered.
The issue arises in a case in which a Lorain, Ohio, man was sentenced to die for the stabbing murder of an old high school friend. State courts overturned the death sentence because of evidence about the impact on the dead man's family. The case is Ohio vs. Huertas (No. 89-1944).