Last April, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed Lorenzo Ali Debruhl's conviction for possession of cocaine, finding that in light of new U.S. Supreme Court precedent at the time in 2009's Arizona v. Gant, the police search of his vehicle had been unconstitutional.
A three-judge appellate panel reheard the case this morning, after agreeing in August to vacate the previous decision (PDF)decision and reconsider the question of how the city's highest court should weigh precedent against the facts of individual cases.
Debruhl was arrested in January 2009 for driving an unregistered car. After he was handcuffed, police searched the car and found a bag of cocaine and drug paraphernalia. In September of that year, Debruhl’s attorney moved to suppress the drugs, claiming that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.
Several months earlier, the Supreme Court had issued the Gant decision, which found that once a suspect arrested for a traffic violation was handcuffed and no longer a threat, it was unlawful for police to search the car without a warrant. Gant clashed with long-standing precedent in 1981’s New York v. Belton, which allowed police to search compartments of a person’s car after a lawful arrest.
The government conceded that Gant could be applied retroactively and that the search in Debruhl’s case was unconstitutional. However, the government argued that because the police had acted based on laws and precedent in place at the time, the court should apply a good-faith exception.
In the April 2010 decision, the three-judge panel disagreed, finding that Belton wasn’t “settled,” citing other case law that tested the boundaries of Belton’s holding that police could indiscriminately search vehicles following a lawful arrest. The government petitioned for a rehearing, which was granted. Senior Judge John Ferren wrote the opinion, and was joined by then-Associate Judges Inez Reid and Noel Kramer.
Kramer retired in May, so Associate Judge Phyllis Thompson took her place on the panel. Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Trossman, arguing for the government, repeatedly cited two decisions from the local appellate court – Staten v. U.S. and U.S. Harris – that she said supported Belton and were proof that it was considered established precedent at the time of Debruhl’s arrest. As long as two key elements of Belton was satisfied, that there was probably cause for the arrest and that the car was searched at the same time, Trossman said the court should find that police were reasonable to think they could rely on Belton.
Ferren pressed Trossman to explain why the “bright-line rule” in Belton meant courts couldn’t consider factual nuances of individual cases. Trossman said that there would be no precedent ever if courts had to match the facts of cases exactly.
Mikel Meredith Weidman of the D.C. Public Defender Service, which filed an amicus brief in the case, argued on behalf of Debruhl.
Weidman argued that that court had discretion to weigh the facts of each case in applying broad precedent. In one 2011 Maryland Court of Appeals decision that supported the government’s case, Briscoe v. Maryland, Weidman said the court should consider the fact that Briscoe dealt with whether police could search a locked compartment, as opposed to whether police had legal ground to conduct a search at all, as was the case in Debruhl’s case.
Debruhl’s attorney, Washington solo practitioner Thomas Farquhar, was present, but he ceded the bulk of arguing time to Weidman. He did say that he believed the case was about Fourth Amendment rights, not the the "convenience of the police.”