Supreme Court upholds police detention based on wrong information

March 02, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, facing for the first time the problem of computer errors that lead to false police arrests, ruled yesterday that police may detain someone after receiving mistaken data supplied by a court clerk.

But a key facet of the court's decision was that five of the nine justices, in a series of separate opinions, put police on notice that they may not routinely make arrests based on computer records that are unreliable.

Although the court voted 7-2 not to disturb the arrests on which police had relied on an error made by a judicial employee, three of the seven justices in the majority stressed that the ruling was meant to be narrow.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, for example, that it would not be constitutional for police to rely on any recordkeeping system, "their own or some other agency's," that is not assured of accuracy and that leads to false arrests even years after faulty data had been put into the system.

"In recent years," Justice O'Connor wrote, "we have witnessed the advent of powerful, computer-based recordkeeping systems that facilitate arrests in ways that have never before been possible." Although she noted that police are entitled to rely

on computer technology, "they may not rely on it blindly."

Similar statements came from Justices Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter, who, along with Justice O'Connor, voted with the majority.

The comments of those three, when added to the outright dissents by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens, showed that a majority of the court was cautioning police against acting on the basis of unreliable computer files.

Justice Ginsburg, in her dissent, argued that police should not be free to act on faulty information in a computer record, even when it came from a court clerk. She said it would be "a powerful incentive" to keep criminal records up to date if government agencies or employees could not use out-of-date information.

She argued that "computerization greatly amplifies an error's effect," because computerized data are shared across the country by police agencies.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who wrote the court's main opinion, said police should be allowed to make arrests based on errors in information supplied by a court clerk. It would not improve police procedure, he said, to ban arrests when the police were not the ones at fault.

The ruling allows Phoenix prosecutors to use as evidence marijuana and drug devices found in the car of a man who had been stopped by police for a traffic violation. He was arrested after police learned from a computer record that he was wanted for another, minor crime. It turned out that the warrant for his arrest on that crime had been nullified, but that fact did not show up in court records.

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