WASHINGTON (CN) - Police waiting to execute a search warrant improperly seized the tenant about a mile away, the divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
After getting a tip that a heavyset black man named "Polo" had a gun and drugs in his Wyandanch, N.Y., basement apartment, Suffolk County Police Department detectives obtained a search warrant in July 2005.
Upon their arrival, detectives saw two men matching the description of Polo leaving the back of the residence. After the men got into a black Lexus and drove off, two detectives tailed them for about a mile and pulled them over. The search team meanwhile searched the apartment at 103 Lake Drive.
Unaware of that search, one of the men, Chunon Bailey, told the detectives that he was coming from his home as at 103 Lake Drive. Bailey had a key for that apartment and his driver's license showed his address in the neighborhood of Bayshore, which the confidential informant had identified as Polo's former address.
After putting Bailey and the other man, Bryant Middleton, in handcuffs, police then revealed that officers were searching 103 Lake Drive. Bailey then told the detectives that he did not live at that address and that anything there did not belong to him.
As Bailey and Middleton waited in the back of a police cruiser, the apartment search turned up at least 5 grams of cocaine and a firearm.
Facing drugs and weapons charges, Bailey claimed that his key and the statements he gave to detectives derived from an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
After a federal judge refused to suppress the evidence, a jury convicted Bailey on all three counts: possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, possession of a firearm by a felon, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. Bailey was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and the 2nd Circuit ruled in July 2011 that the detectives had properly detained him.
The Supreme Court took up the case in June 2012 to settle discord among the circuits as to whether search warrants cover the detention of occupants beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises.
Current precedent stems from the 1981 decision Michigan v. Summers, in which police detained a defendant on a walk leading down from the front steps of the house.
Unlike the 2005 decision Muehler v. Mena, the rule in Summers does not require law enforcement to have particular suspicion that an individual is involved in criminal activity or poses a specific danger to the officers.
The court concluded Tuesday that Summers does not justify detentions beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises being searched.
"In the instant case Bailey had left the premises, apparently without knowledge of the search," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a six-member majority. "He posed little risk to the officers at the scene. If Bailey had rushed back to his apartment, the police could have apprehended and detained him under Summers. There is no established principle, however, that allows the arrest of anyone away from the premises who is likely to return."
After driving away, Bailey also was not a threat to the proper execution of the search, according to the ruling.