OLYMPIA -- In a Washington state case argued by the Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Supreme Court this week issued a unanimous opinion that will protect police officers from false-arrest allegations if they misstate the reason why a suspect is being arrested.
The decision in the case of Devenpeck v. Alford means an arrest is valid if the law officer knows facts that provide “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed, regardless of whether the officer misstates the law in giving the reason for the arrest. Under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, an officer must have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed in order to make a warrantless arrest.
“ This case illustrates a basic fact about police work, that officers in the field often believe they have a legitimate basis to arrest a suspect for more than one crime,” said Senior Assistant Attorney General Maureen Hart, who represented the Washington State Patrol in the case before the Supreme Court. “The court’s decision underscores the principle that probable cause is the key factor in making a legal arrest, not what an officer tells the suspect while the handcuffs are being put on.”
In the 1997 incident that led to this week’s Supreme Court decision, state troopers were investigating a possible police-officer impersonation incident in Pierce County. During the course of the investigation, one of the troopers noticed a tape recorder with the record button
depressed in the suspect’s car. The trooper informed the suspect he was under arrest for violating the state Privacy Act by recording his conversation with the officers.
The Privacy Act charge later was dismissed by a trial court, and the suspect, Jerome Alford, sued the State Patrol, claiming false arrest. A jury found in favor of the patrol, but a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel later ruled that the patrol did not have probable cause to arrest Alford because the Privacy Act charge had been dismissed.
The Supreme Court’s decision this week did not determine whether probable cause in fact existed to arrest Alford on the impersonation charge, but it said the patrol’s stated reason for his arrest did not have to be “closely related” to that charge.
The court’s opinion was 8-0, which Chief Justice William Rehnquist taking no part in the decision. The full text of the court’s opinion is available on the Supreme Court web site at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/04slipopinion.html