Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Court clarifies earlier opinion: "We have never held that an arrest that is unlawful under state law is unreasonable per se under the 4th A."

In United States v. Laville, No. 06-1577 (3d Cir. Mar. 16, 2007), the Third Circuit—in a decision authored by Judge Barry, with a concurrence by Judge McKee and dissent by Judge Stapleton—reversed the district court’s grant of a motion to suppress post-arrest statements, explaining that the district court misinterpreted the Third Circuit’s holding in United States v. Myers, 308 F.3d 251 (3d Cir. 2002)(authored by Judge McKee, joined by Judge Barry, with a dissent by Judge Alarcon, from the Ninth Circuit). The district court found that the officer who arrested the defendant only had probable cause that the defendant had committed a misdemeanor offense (illegal entry), which, under the territorial law of the Virgin Islands, must be committed in the presence of an officer to justify a warrantless arrest. The district court read Myers as holding that local law governed the constitutionality of the defendant’s arrest; therefore, since the offense had been completed before the officer arrived at the scene, he had no authority to arrest Laville.

Judge Barry’s opinion explained that the district court’s ruling was based on a misinterpretation of Myers. "We did not hold in Myers and, indeed, have never held that an arrest that is unlawful under state and local law is unreasonable per se under the Fourth Amendment." Rather, "the validity of an arrest under state law is at most a factor that a court may consider in assessing the broader question of probable cause." The Court emphasized that reasonableness is the central inquiry under the Fourth Amendment and, under that standard, Laville’s arrest was supported by probable cause.

Judge McKee concurred with this analysis, but wrote separately to note his concern that the government is not allowed to take an interlocutory appeal merely because it disagrees with a suppression ruling. Moreover, this case could be decided entirely on the basis of the Third Circuit’s analysis of when the offense of illegal entry is completed in Yang v. Maugans, 68 F.3d 1540 (3d Cir. 1995).

In dissent, Judge Stapleton agrees with the district court that Myers requires application of the misdemeanor presence rule to determine the validity of Laville’s arrest. Even apart from Myers and the misdemeanor presence rule, however, Judge Stapleton would affirm the lower court because the information available to the arresting officer was insufficient to supply probable cause for an arrest.

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