Today in 1983 – The Supreme Court rules in Michigan v. Long

July 6, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryOver a year ago, I wrote another Today in Legal History post about the Supreme Court’s 1968 ruling in Terry v. Ohio, which created the “Terry stop.”

The article was posted on Westlaw’s Twitter account, and in one of the many retweets, someone opined that the decision further “eviscerated” our rights.

Well, if you thought Terry was bad, you won’t like this one.

29 years ago today, on July 6, 1983, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Michigan v. Long, which further expanded the “evisceration” of individual rights embodied by the Terry stop.

In case you are wondering, a Terry stop is a brief police detention of a person based on “reasonable suspicion” of his or her involvement in criminal activity (but without probable cause to make an arrest).

In the original Terry ruling, the Supreme Court only permitted a search of the person.

Long extended the scope of this search to allow the search of the passenger compartment and trunk of a vehicle.

However, this expanded scope of the search is only allowable if certain conditions are met.

First, the police officer must have reasonable suspicion that the vehicle’s driver or any of the occupants may be dangerous.

Second, the police must also reasonably suspect that the vehicle may contain a weapon to which an occupant may gain access.

Of course, a weapon is rarely what actually turns up during such a search.

This was the case in Long, as well.

David Long, the defendant in the case, was stopped by police after he had been driving erratically and drove his car into a shallow ditch at night.

The officers saw a hunting knife on the floorboard of the driver’s side of the car, and then proceeded to conduct a patdown search of Long, which revealed no weapons.

One of the officers then searched the cabin of the car, and discovered an open pouch that contained marijuana.

Long was then arrested for possession.

The officers decided to impound the vehicle, and an additional 75 pounds of marijuana was found in the trunk.

Long moved to suppress this evidence, but his motion was denied by both the state trial and appeals courts.

However, the Michigan state supreme court reversed, finding that both the Michigan and U.S. Constitutions proscribed the search of Long’s vehicle.

This is where the Supreme Court took the “evisceration” an extra step.

Previously, the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to hear an appeal from a ruling of a state’s highest court if the judgment is grounded in state law that is both “adequate” to support the judgment and “independent” of federal law.

Though that’s still the case, the Supreme Court ruled in Long that since the Michigan state ruling didn’t specifically say that the decision rested on bona fide state grounds, there weren’t adequate and independent state grounds in the Michigan high court’s ruling.

Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court got the final word in the matter.

That was a brand-new requirement introduced in Long that gives the U.S. Supreme Court wide deference in determining whether to usurp a state constitution in favor of the U.S. one – which is, more often than not, less protective of individual rights.

Perhaps this last “evisceration” makes the first even more distressing – the Supreme Court gave itself the authority to hear the case, and our civil liberties came out weaker because of it.