Military police may arrest civilians in military drug bust, high court rules

March 22, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for military police to round up civilians who get caught in a military drug bust that is set up outside the boundaries of a base.

Without comment, the court turned down an appeal by an Air Force enlisted man's wife challenging her arrest and detention by military investigators after she showed up at an apartment that was the scene of an undercover drug operation.

Under a 116-year-old federal law, the military is barred from enforcing civilian laws. But a federal appeals court ruled in June that the 1878 law is not violated if civilians get snared in a net that the military has cast for its own members who may be violating military law.

So long as military police are carrying out a military purpose independent of civilian police, they may arrest civilians on the scene and hand them over to civilian police for prosecution, the appeals court declared.

That ruling was challenged by Carol J. Applewhite of Albuquerque, N.M., who contended that it is unconstitutional and a violation of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act for military police to seize any civilian off the base. The military, she said, has no jurisdiction over civilians not found on a military reservation.

Mrs. Applewhite was arrested in 1986 by Air Force investigators when she joined her husband in visiting an Albuquerque apartment. The investigators were using that unit for a "buy-bust" operation; anyone who came to buy was arrested.

Mrs. Applewhite, who was held for about three hours and released after the Albuquerque police showed no interest in prosecuting her, sued the three Air Force agents who had taken her in. Her husband, Airman 1st Class William Applewhite, was convicted of military drug crimes.

The Supreme Court also took these actions yesterday:

* It asked the Clinton administration for its views on the legality of company rules that require workers to speak only English on the job.

* The court voted to leave intact an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that evidence that an individual burned the American flag during a protest may not be used in a trial on charges of inciting violence, since the Supreme Court has ruled that flag burning is protected free speech. The state court threw out the conviction and one-year prison sentence of Cheryl Lessin over a 1990 protest.

* The court agreed to rule, in its term starting next fall, on the right of companies that sell homeowners' contracts to send all disputes to arbitration.

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