Unconstitutional Policing, Part 1: Redefining the Police Ethics Paradigm

Since all policing authority in the United States is derived from the U.S. Constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights, to ignore, circumvent, or abuse these limitations of authority is to betray the very tenets entrenched in the nobility of the profession. In every critical police procedural decision, a specific amendment has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court to provide guidance and focus for those whose chosen profession is law enforcement. Very little individual subjectivity need be the norm when good faith and constitutional reasonableness guide such decisions. For decades, police training curricula myopically emphasized how to circumvent the Fourth Amendment through judicially sanctioned exceptions to the mandatory warrant clause. What is evolving in police training circles today is a more comprehensive, big-picture approach regarding the philosophical tenets of decision making in relation to agency liability that provides useful and practical insights for the profession as it moves forward.

Consent, plain view, plain touch, exigent circumstances, officer safety, and evidence destruction are the commonly employed exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s mandatory warrant clause. Often, despite the fact that police authority is constitutionally limited in its scope, courts will uphold criminal convictions despite an officer’s honest mistake. In Heien v. North Carolina (2014), an officer’s good faith mistake of a traffic law did not invalidate his subsequent search and arrest for cocaine possession.1 As long as police actions appear to be legally and ethically founded in the well-intentioned, good faith use of commonsense crime-fighting measures, courts are willing to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt. A failure to understand and appreciate this balance between judicially sanctioned limitations on police powers and balanced good faith decision making undermines the overall policing process and the profession’s image and results in weeks of 24-hour news coverage.