The United States Supreme Court has been in the news this week for one decision and will be in the news next week for a case that could have huge consequences on American society and our legal system.
First, in Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court limited the ability of police officers to detain automobiles for the purposes of conducting searches with drug dogs. In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court held that absent reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizures.
The case originated from a case in Nebraska, where a vehicle was pulled over for a traffic offense. After the police officer issued a warning, he asked the driver for permission to run his drug dog around the vehicle. When the driver declined, the officer called for backup. Once the backup arrived, the officer ran his K9 through the automobile and found narcotics in the car. Dennys Rodriguez was arrested, charged and convicted of federal drug offenses.
In writing the majority opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote that "[a] seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, 'become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission” of issuing a ticket for the violation.'"
This decision will have huge implications on drug cases in both state and federal court, and counters decades of lower-court decisions that allowed officers the ability to detain drivers and passengers for a limited amount of time to conduct dog sniffs of automobiles. This could have a large impact on cases from agencies with drug interdiction responsibilities, such as the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
The decision could also have a large impact on non-narcotics cases, such as OVI/DUI cases. For example, in a case where the officer has issued a citation or warning, their continued detention of a driver to inquire about the driver's drinking may be held to be unconstitutional. While attorneys and judges are unsure of the full impact of the case, attorneys at the trial and appellate levels need to ensure that their clients' rights are protected.
In a case to be heard this week, the Supreme Court will review the issue of same sex marriage. The Court will hear cases from the four states that make up the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals -- Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee -- on whether those states bans on same sex marriage is constitutional. SCOTUSBlog has a special section dedicated to the cases here.
While a number of court viewers expect the Court to find the marriage bans unconstitutional, and even one Justice has hinted that the bans would be thrown out, the question is how this will impact the law with regards to other issues. For example, if the Court finds that bans on same sex marriages are unconstitutional, as the Court did decades earlier with regards to interracial marriages, the entire country will be able to enjoy the freedom to marry.
However, if the Court only rules that other states must recognize same sex marriages performed in other states, and does not issue an opinion on the issue in general, then there will be legal issues raised regarding how states deal with marriages performed in other states.
While most Court watchers believe that the Court will nullify same sex marriage bans, the Court's decision will have a huge impact on other areas of law. For example, if same sex marriages are legal, same sex divorces will not be far behind. Currently, Ohio law does not really know what to do with same sex divorces, but Courts and judges will soon start dealing with cases involving divorces from same sex couples.
Additionally, issues surrounding family law, such as custody and probate law, will also need to deal with the changes. For example, same sex spouses will now be considered family members, which could have a huge impact on custody cases. Similarly, laws regarding inheritance and dower rights will have to adjust to having new parties involved in cases. As such, family and estate planning, including prenuptial agreements, will have to be given greater consideration by same sex couples.
For the most part, the adjustments that lawyers and courts will have to make will be mostly technical -- the laws will be same, but additional parties may be added to cases and there may be a higher number of cases. The issue will be making sure that judges, governmental agencies and attorneys treat same sex spouses in the same manner in which they treat opposite sex couples.
In my opinion, even before the Court's announcement, couples who were legally married -- whether same sex or opposite sex -- should enjoy the same rights and privileges. I have represented members of same sex couples in custody and criminal cases, and was one of the first prosecutors in Summit County to take a same sex assault case to trial.
In each of these cases, one of the key problems has been getting people -- jurors, judges, attorneys or agencies -- to look past the genders in the relationship and see the parties as a family unit. Over the years, it has become easier to get people to give same sex couples the same respect that they give opposite sex couples.
Hopefully, with the Supreme Court's ultimate decision, it will be easier for courts, and those who participate in them, to accept and grant the same legal status and respect to same sex couples as currently enjoyed by heterosexual couples.