Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart (05-502) and order list

May 22, 2006 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court Fans!
It was a pretty slow Monday for late May – the Court issued only one opinion, meaning that we may have some heavy opinion days as the Term draws to a close.
In Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart (05-502), the Court held, unanimously and to no one's surprise, that police may enter a home without a warrant when there is an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with serious injury. Utah police, responding to complaints about a loud party, arrived at a residence where, through a window, they saw a juvenile strike an adult and cause him to spit blood, and then saw several adults try to restrain the juvenile. The police entered, broke up the fight, and arrested all involved. The Utah courts all held that evidence obtained after the officers' entry had to be suppressed because the "emergency aid" exception to the Fourth Amendment did not apply since: (1) the juvenile's punch did not give rise to an objectively reasonable belief that anybody inside was unconscious or semi-conscious, and (2) the officers were motivated to make an arrest rather than to help the injured adult. The Chief wrote for the Court, which rejected the Utah courts' focus on the officers' subjective motivations for entering the house. Even assuming that the officer's actual motives could be unraveled, the Fourth Amendment issue is whether the circumstances objectively justified entry. Here, they did, as there was an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the injured adult might need help and that the violence at the home was just beginning. The Court also rejected the Utah courts' threshold for emergency aid, holding that the Fourth Amendment does not require police to wait until someone is rendered semi-conscious: "[A]n officer is not like a boxing (or hockey) referee, poised to stop a bout only if it becomes too one-sided." (Just how easy was this case? It was argued exactly four weeks ago, and 25 argued cases that preceded it are still awaiting decision).
Noting that this was "an odd flyspeck of a case," Justice Stevens wrote an equally odd concurrence. Stevens agreed with the Court's Fourth Amendment ruling, stating that "it is hard to imagine the outcome was ever in doubt." But Stevens actually would have denied cert in the first place, based on the Utah Supreme Court's request in its decision below that any future suppression challenges come under the Utah Constitution rather than (as Stuart had done here) under just the Fourth Amendment. Stevens read this invitation to signal that Utah would adopt its restrictive reading of the Fourth Amendment under its own constitution, which of course any state is free to do. (Stevens, however, did not explain why this would have justified leaving an erroneous reading of the federal Constitution intact, which denying cert would have done.).
The Court's order list included no new cert grants, but the Court did ask the SG for his views on the cert petition in Watson v. Phillip Morris Co. (05-1284), which asks "[w]hether a private actor doing no more than complying with federal regulation is a ‘person acting under a federal officer' for the purpose of 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1), entitling the actor to remove to federal court a civil action brought in state court under state law."
That's it for now Thanks for reading!
Ken & Kim

From the Appellate Practice Group at Wiggin and Dana. For more information, contact Kim Rinehart, Ken Heath, Aaron Bayer, or Jeff Babbin at 203-498-4400