[This is going to be a lengthy post, so bear with me, but you must read it in its entirety. This has tremendous implications for those who are concerned about the imbalance of power in our society, especially when it comes to the ever-increasing encroachment of the government into our civil liberties and the already alarming abuse of power against minorities.]
I’m going to posit two scenarios. First, imagine you are walking down a public street with your friend. You’re both on your way to the local grocery store to buy some hummus. The police pull up, take a look at you friend and mistakenly believe that he’s a notorious wanted criminal. They order him to stop. You, not wanting to be caught up in this police business, keep walking, but they order you to stop, even though they don’t know you, don’t suspect you and you haven’t done anything wrong. You have rights, dammit and you know the Fourth Amendment. Can they stop you and force you to give up your freedom?
The second is this: what I’ve just described above is a version of the events that transpired. They’re “facts” in a sense that they’re your recitation of the events. But that’s obviously not good enough, right? There is another version – that of the police officers. So who gets to decide which is the “truth”? Which is believable and accurate and should be relied upon? Because – and this is critical – the law is entirely fact-dependent. How the law applies depends on the nuances of the factual scenarios. And that is left entirely up to the trial judge: the judge that hears the evidence from you and the police officers and then decides what “actually” happened. That’s called fact-finding and will only be overturned if “clearly erroneous”. Meaning almost never. There is a deified deference paid to the trial court’s “findings of fact”.
This is all important, as you will see in a second, because the Connecticut Supreme Court yesterday [PDF] in State v. Jeremy Kelly, in its ever expanding love-affair with convictions and a not-so-shocking-anymore disregard for Constitutional protections, engaged in some blatant retconning of “factual findings” with the help of the trial judge to ensure that the “facts” supported their interpretation which supported a conviction.
You can now be legally detained/seized/stopped on a street by police even if they have absolutely no reason to stop you.
As I wrote in my preview post and then the argument recap post, the police and the prosecution in the State of Connecticut were seeking extraordinary authority to detain/seize anyone lawfully walking down the street in a public place in Connecticut, if they believed that people in the vicinity may have committed a crime. One of the bulwarks of the Fourth Amendment protection is that the police need something called particularized suspicion, meaning that they need to have some evidence to believe that you have committed a crime in order to stop you.
This opinion does away with that. In fact, the police don’t even have to be correct about the person in your vicinity they are seeking to stop. In Kelly, the opinion at issue, they had the wrong guy they wanted to stop. In other words, they completely botched their job and as a result, we’ve all lost our ability to freely walk down the street without being forced to submit to police authority for no reason at all.
In some other countries, we call that martial law. In America, we call that officer safety.
I would encourage you to read the masterful dissent [PDF] that lays waste to all the majority’s purported “reasoning”. Here’s a sample:
I agree with the majority that the police have a legitimate interest in protecting themselves. There must be, however, some restrictions placed on the intent. In my view, there are several potential unconscionable ramifications to the majority opinion. For instance, if a suspect with an outstanding warrant is talking to his neighbor’s family near the property line, can the police now detain the entire family as part of the encounter with the suspect? If the suspect is waiting at a bus stop with six other strangers, can they all be detained? If the same suspect is observed leaving a house and stopped in the front yard, can the police now seize everyone in the house to ensure that no one will shoot them while they question the suspect? What if the suspect is detained in a neighborhood known to have a high incident of crime, can the police now seize everyone in the entire neighborhood to ensure their safety while they detain the suspect? There simply is no definition of who is a ‘‘companion’’ in the majority opinion. I would require more than mere ‘‘guilt by association.’’ Ever mindful of Franklin’s admonition, we cannot use the omnipresent specter of safety as a guise to authorize government intrusion. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.
Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia
As mentioned above, one of the chief conceits in the legal system is that facts exist not as they are, but as a judge or jury finds them to be. This has great value in the way our system operates because it defines a universe according to rules of evidence and the primary goal is to ensure reliability.
In recent months, the Connecticut Supreme Court has shown a greater willingness, on appeal, to consider legal arguments that were not raised before. While this has raised some hackles, I generally view it as a good move.
Never before, in my opinion, however, has the Court engaged in retroactive fact-finding. So here’s the setup from the majority opinion:
The defendant next claims that the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the trial court properly had found that Detective Rivera and Lieutenant Angeles were justified in detaining the defendant because they had a reasonable concern for their safety. In support of this claim, the defendant asserts that the trial court’s conclusion was based on clearly erroneous factual findings and, further, that the Appellate Court ignored those erroneous findings and improperly upheld the trial court’s ruling on the basis of facts that the trial court never found.
In other words, the trial court, in finding the need for officer safety, relied on clearly erroneous fact A and then, the Appellate Court ignored the trial court’s error as to fact A and instead said that the trial court was correct because of fact B. The trial court had never explicitly considered fact B.
You will have guessed by now that both fact A and fact B support a conviction.
In support of the finding of officer safety, the trial judge found that the guy the police were looking for (who, of course, was neither of the guys stopped) had a felony warrant for possession of a firearm, and that’s it.
The Appellate Court found that the stop was justified because of the felony warrant for a firearm and credible evidence that the guy they were looking for was armed and dangerous, a fact omitted by the trial court.
The Supreme Court had to agree that the “felony possession of a firearm” factual finding was clearly erroneous because no witness testified as to those words. It was, in fact, a warrant for a violation of probation.
But here’s where it gets weird. After the case was argued in the Supreme Court, they send a letter to the trial judge and asked:
- Did you mean felony warrant for violation of probation?
Did you consider the evidence that they received a tip that the guy was armed and dangerous?
The answers, of course, to both were yes, despite there being absolutely no evidence of that in the trial court’s ruling.
It is certainly very curious that the Supreme Court would take the extraordinary step of clarifying “factual findings” by the trial court in an effort to support the conviction, when the clear record below – the words said by the judge in open court – would support a reversal.
This is highly unusual and should trouble everyone. I’m not assuming that there was anything malicious about it – that would be ridiculous – but even with a benign intent to “get to the truth” or whatever you want to call it, giving a trial judge an opportunity to change his responses in order to conform them to what the Supreme Court is clearly looking for really undermines faith in the process and the system.
Where does it stop? Are facts only facts as long as they’re convenient? Are rights only rights as long as they don’t get in the way of governmental authority?
Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.