One for the cops

Posted: May 31, 2006 12:01 AM

A policeman's lot, as Gilbert & Sullivan taught us, is usually not a happy one. With its unanimous opinion last week in Brigham City v. Stuart, the Supreme Court made a policeman's lot at least a little less unhappy.

Except for its usefulness to law enforcement, the case was monumentally unimportant. It merits your attention anyhow, if only because it set a term record for comity among the frequently warring justices. With barely a month of the '05 term to go, this appeal became the 36th case to be decided without a dissenting vote since the term began last October.

Think about it. Such comity! Such harmony! Chief Justice John Roberts is becoming the Great Uniter. His opinion, reversing the Supreme Court of Utah, drew agreeable nods from seven of his concurring colleagues and no more than a second-class grumble from Justice John Paul Grumpy. These days the sun shines bright upon their old and marbled home.

The case arose almost six years ago in Brigham City (pop. 17,300), 30 miles north of Salt Lake City. It appears from the record that some of the boys were whooping it up in a private residence at 3 o'clock on a Sunday morning. The revelry got out of hand. Neighbors complained, as neighbors will. Four officers arrived. They broke up the fun, arrested the revelers, and charged them with being drunk and disorderly. Once upon a time that would have been that, but Utah is not a western outpost anymore. Now they have lawyers out there.

Thus the defendants alertly pleaded that the cops had trampled upon their Fourth Amendment rights. The Constitution, in their view, says that every belligerent drunk in Utah has a constitutional right to be secure in his living room against "unreasonable" seizure. That's what it says, OK? Utah's Supreme Court limply agreed -- the case presented "a close and difficult call" -- and the city appealed. Last week the Supreme Court came down on the side of the city.

Chief Justice Roberts was unequivocal: "We think the officers' entry here was plainly reasonable under the circumstances. The officers were responding, at 3 o'clock in the morning, to complaints about a loud party. As they approached the house, they could hear from within 'an altercation occurring, some kind of a fight.' They heard 'thumping and crashing' and people yelling 'stop, stop' and 'Get off me!'"

The officers twice announced their presence. They could not be heard above the din. It was obvious that knocking on the front door would have been futile. Clearly, a fracas was taking place! Through a window, the officers saw "a juvenile, fists clenched, ... being held back by several adults."

At this point in his opinion, swept away by his own vivid narration, the chief justice shifted into the historical present: "As the officers watch, the juvenile breaks free and strikes one of the adults in the face, sending the adult to the sink spitting blood."

In these circumstances, Roberts concluded, shifting grammatical gears again, the officers had "an objectively reasonable basis" for believing that the injured adult needed help. They had twice announced their presence. This was at least equivalent to a knock upon the door. Nothing in the Fourth Amendment required them to wait until another blow rendered someone unconscious or semi-conscious or worse before entering. "An officer is not like a boxing (or hockey) referee, poised to stop a bout only if it becomes too one-sided." No good purpose would have been served by requiring them "to stand dumbly at the door awaiting a response while those within brawled on ..."

Thus was Case No. 05-502 remanded to the courts of Utah. There Charles W. Stuart and his buddies at last will face the majesty of the law. The Supreme Court has spoken. Unanimously!

Justice Stevens, unimpressed, began his brief concurring opinion with a thought for the day: "This is an odd flyspeck of a case." He found it hard to imagine why the outcome ever was in doubt. The only difficult question, in his view, is which of the following is the most peculiar: (1) that the Utah judges could have sensed a Fourth Amendment violation under the self-evident facts, (2) that the city chose to pursue the case all the way to the Supreme Court, or (3) that Chief Justice Roberts and seven colleagues ever voted to hear the case in the first place.

Twenty-eight argued cases remain to be decided. At least six of them have lots more pizzazz.