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Maryland v. Garrison

Latitude For Honest Mistakes Made By Officers

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, noting that it involved two separate constitutional issues--the validity of the warrant and the reasonableness of its execution. In his written opinion, Justice Stevens noted that the warrant clause of the Fourth Amendment prohibits the issuance of a general warrant. Instead, the warrant must describe the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. This is known as the particularity requirement. This requirement serves to carefully tailor the search to its justification and to prevent wide-ranging exploratory searches, which the framers of the Constitution wanted to prohibit. In the current case, the description of the place to be searched was broader than appropriate because of the mistaken belief that only one apartment was on the third floor. The constitutionality of the officers' actions must be judged based on the information that they had at the time. The discovery of facts showing that a valid warrant was unnecessarily broad does not make that warrant invalid.

Stevens next discussed whether the execution of the warrant violated Garrison's right to be secure in his home. If the officers had known that the third floor contained two apartments, they would have had to limit their search to McWebb's apartment. Once they realized they were in the wrong apartment they ended the search. Their conduct and the search limits were based on information that became available as the search proceeded. Although the purpose of a search strictly limits the extent of a search, "the Court has also recognized the need to allow some latitude for honest mistakes that are made by officers in the dangerous and difficult process of making arrests and executing search warrants."

Stevens quoted Hill v. California, a case in which the officers arrested the wrong man. "Sufficient probability, not certainty, is the touchstone of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment . . . the officers' mistake was understandable and the arrest a reasonable response to the situation . . . " Stevens felt the same principle applied in Maryland v. Garrison. The validity of the search of Garrison's apartment, using a warrant for the search of the entire third floor, depends on whether the officers' failure to recognize the overbreadth of the warrant was understandable and reasonable. The objective facts show that the officers had never suggested two apartments existed. Thus, their belief that only one apartment existed and that they could search the whole third floor was reasonable. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals' decision that the warrant did not authorize the search and that the police were not justified in entering Garrison's apartment.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Maryland v. Garrison - Significance, Latitude For Honest Mistakes Made By Officers, Evidence Against The Victim Of Police Error Should Not Be Used