High Court To Hear Search and Seizure Case

Meeting for the first time since its decisive ruling on the presidential election, the Supreme Court justices decided to take on a case that may affect search and seizure laws but passed on getting involved in the census sampling debate and rejected an appeal in the Whitewater scandal.

Unwarranted Search and Seizure? No High Sampling The Harassment Cap Whitewater Conspiracy: Case Closed

Unwarranted Search and Seizure

The Supreme Court agreed today to clarify whether police can always search a car without a warrant making an arrest.

The court said it will hear Florida prosecutors’ appeal of a state court ruling that said police cannot automatically conduct such a search if the person got out of the car before the initial contact with police.

In 1997, Robert A. Thomas was arrested after he drove up to a house where police were making arrests for narcotics offenses. Thomas got out of his car and walked toward the rear of the car, where an officer met him and asked to see his driver’s license.

A license check showed an arrest warrant for a probation violation. The officer arrested Thomas, and a search of his car shortly afterward found plastic bags containing a substance that police said tested positive as methamphetamine.

A state trial judge granted Thomas’ request to bar the use of the evidence. A state appeals court disagreed, saying the search was lawful because it followed Thomas’ arrest.

The nation’s highest court ruled in 1981 that when a police officer has arrested the occupant of a vehicle, the officer can search the car’s passenger compartment.

But the Florida Supreme Court ruled that because Thomas had gotten out of the car before he had any contact with police, the officers could not automatically search his car after arresting him. Instead, the court said police must show the search was necessary to protect officers’ safety or to preserve evidence.

The case is Florida vs. Thomas, 00-391.

No High Sampling

The Supreme Court today refused to be drawn into a growing national fight over sampling in redrawing state political districts.

Acting in a case from Virginia, the justices affirmed a three-judge federal court ruling the state had acted prematurely in seeking to avoid getting federal approval for its statute barring the use of sampled Census Bureau data.

Arizona also has a law barring the use of sampled data in redrawing legislative and congressional districts. Arizona and Virginia are among 16 states which are required to get federal approval of election-law changes because of past civil rights violations.

The statistical method known as “sampling,” intended to make up for an expected undercount of minority voters, is in addition to the traditional head count conducted every decade.

The Supreme Court previously barred the use of such sampling to parcel out congressional seats among the states. The 435 House seats are redistributed according to state population after each decennial Census.

Virginia’s Republican-controlled Legislature voted last year to prevent the use of sampling in redistricting.

The state then sued the federal government in an attempt to avoid getting Justice Department approval of the state law. The state argued, among other things, that it needed to move quickly because the first round of redistricting is due before this fall’s off-year elections for the state Legislature.

A three-judge panel of the federal District Court threw out the case in October, but did allow Virginia localities more time, if needed, to redraw political boundaries.

The state appealed, asking the Supreme Court to consider the case, or to order the lower court to reconsider.

The bureau released the first, raw totals from the 2000 Census last month. The figures show more than 281 million people living in America on April 1, 2000, and set in motion the shift of 12 congressional seats to states with the fastest growth.

The case is Virginia vs. Reno, 00-862.

The Harassment Cap

The Supreme Court agreed today to decide whether victims of on-the-job harassment can win upfront damages that are higher than a cap set by Congress.

The court said it will review the sexual harassment case of a Memphis, Tenn., chemical plant worker whose male co-workers allegedly sabotaged her performance, called her barnyard names and refused to talk to her after she was chosen to address a group of girls visiting the plant for “Take Your Daughters to Work Day” in 1994.

Two lower courts found the treatment of Sharon Pollard was discriminatory and ordered her former employer, the DuPont chemical company, to pay a variety of damages. DuPont has fought the damage awards.

At issue for the Supreme Court is whether Pollard can collect more than $300,000 in “front pay,” or money she presumably would have earned had she been able to go on working at the plant. One economist estimated at trial that she was really due about $800,000 in front pay and benefits.

The Cincinnati-based 6th federal appeals court ruled that front pay amounts to compensatory damages in this case, and is subject to a $300,000 cap set by Congress as part of 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act.

The Supreme Court ruling, expected by summer, could affect any employee who wins a harassment or discrimination case in which the potential for front pay is more than $300,000.

The case is Pollard vs. DuPont, 00-763.

Whitewater Conspiracy: Case Closed

The high court also refused to reinstate the lawsuit of a man who claims the FBI and others conspired to intimidate him over his testimony about the 1993 death of White House lawyer Vince Foster.

The court, without comment, refused to revive Patrick James Knowlton’s lawsuit against two FBI agents and more than two dozen other people, many of them unidentified.

Knowlton had stopped briefly at a park in suburban Virginia on July 20, 1993, shortly before Foster was found there with a gunshot wound to the head. Knowlton apparently did not see Foster’s body, but he later told an FBI agent that a car he saw at the park did not look like a photo he was shown of Foster’s car.

Four investigations — including one by Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr — concluded that Foster committed suicide, but some people have speculated that Foster may have been murdered.

In 1995, Knowlton was quoted in a news report as saying the FBI had falsified his report about the car. Later he was called to testify before a federal grand jury.

During the days before his testimony, Knowlton contended that more than 20 people approached him on public streets and sidewalks and “glared” at him. He complained to the FBI and later said the agent who came to his home disabled his phone so he could not call his lawyer.

Knowlton sued in 1996, saying two FBI agents and 26 other people conspired in a “campaign of harassment, intimidation, terror and psychological attack” to keep him from testifying fully.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in September 1999, saying the FBI agent who questioned Knowlton about the car accurately reported that Knowlton believed the car was not the same as Foster’s car. The judge also said Knowlton did not show there was any agreement to interfere with his testimony or that the 26 other people even knew each other.

A federal appeals court upheld the ruling last June.

The cases are Knowlton vs. Bransford, 00-718, and In Re Patrick James Knowlton, 00-719. The Associated Press contributed to this report.