U.S Supreme Court Declines to Extend Officer’s Detention Authority Incident to Execution of Search Warrant Beyond Immediate Vicinity of Premises

In Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an officer’s authority under the Fourth Amendment to detain—without reasonable suspicion or probable cause—people at a residence where a search warrant is being executed. The defendant in Summers was detained on a walkway leading down from the front steps of a house that was to be searched for drugs pursuant to a search warrant. The Court recognized three important interests, considered together, that justified the detention: (1) officer safety; (2) facilitating the completion of the search by preventing those inside from interfering with the officers; and (3) preventing flight if incriminating evidence was found.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bailey v. United States that Summers did not authorize officers, who saw defendant Bailey leaving in a vehicle from the premises where a search warrant was about to be executed for a gun involved in a drug purchase, to delay making a detention until he was about a mile away. The Court stated that the Summers ruling and its reasoning was limited to people in the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched, which clearly did not include where Bailey was stopped. The Court reasoned that officer safety did not support the automatic detention of a person who was not in the immediate vicinity: officers have the authority to post officers near the premises to bar or detain anyone attempting to enter. If officers find that it would be dangerous to detain a departing person in front of the premises (possibly alerting anyone inside), they are not required to stop that person. Concerning facilitating the completion of the search, Bailey’ presence a mile away was not a threat. If he had returned, officers could clearly detain him. The need to prevent flight if incriminating evidence was found simply did not apply to Bailey, who was some distance from the premises. The Court concluded that Bailey’s detention under the Summers ruling was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The Court left for future cases the meaning of “immediate vicinity.” It stated that courts can consider a number of relevant factors and specifically listed: (1) the lawful limits of the premises (presumably this means the actual property lines); (2) whether the person was within the line of sight of his or her dwelling; and (3) the ease of reentry from the occupant’s location.

The Court noted that if officers elect to defer a detention until a suspect or departing occupant of the premises leaves the immediate vicinity, the legality of a detention under the Fourth Amendment will be governed by other standards, such an investigative stop based on reasonable suspicion or an arrest supported by probable cause. Factors to consider are: (1) information already in the officers’ possession before the search warrant was obtained; (2) any incriminating acts by the person leaving the premises such as appearing to be armed or possessing the evidence being sought; and (3) any information communicated to the detaining officers from those conducting the search of the premises. The Court mentioned that searching officers in Bailey had radioed the detaining officers of their discovery of guns and drugs in the premises, and this information may have provided probable cause to arrest.

The federal district court in Bailey had ruled that the detention was valid under Summers, but if it was not valid, the detention was supported by reasonable suspicion. The federal court of appeals decided that the detention was valid under Summers without considering the alternate reasonable suspicion ground. Now that the Supreme Court has reversed on the Summers ground (it did not consider the reasonable suspicion issue), the court of appeals must decide the reasonable suspicion ground. So whether Bailey will ultimately win a reversal of his conviction remains to be seen.

As a result of Bailey, officers planning to execute a search warrant need to consider how to respond if they interact with people who are not within the immediate vicinity of the premises. If they detain or arrest someone there, they must remember that reasonable suspicion or probable cause will be required.

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