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Police need not explain arrests says high court

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Police Need Not Say Why Arrest Made: U.S. High Court Overview
Dec. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Police officers don't have to give a reason at the time they arrest someone, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a ruling that shields officers from false-arrest lawsuits.

The justices, voting 8-0, threw out a suit against Washington state police officers who stopped a motorist and then told him he was being arrested for tape-recording their conversation. Although the recording was legal, the high court said the arrest was valid because the man could have been arrested instead for impersonating a police officer.

In an opinion for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said the officers didn't have to provide a reason for arresting the man at all, as long as they had probable cause to do so.

``While it is assuredly good police practice to inform a person of the reason for his arrest at the time he is taken into custody, we have never held that to be constitutionally required,'' Scalia wrote.

The decision was one of five issued by the court today in Washington. In a second unanimous ruling, the court said the Florida Supreme Court was wrong to set aside a death penalty verdict on the grounds that the defense lawyer didn't obtain explicit client authorization to concede guilt and focus on the penalty phase of the trial.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the high court, said that factor didn't automatically render the lawyer's performance deficient and warrant a new trial in the murder case.

Rehnquist Plans

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who announced Oct. 25 that he is being treated for thyroid cancer, didn't take part in either unanimous ruling.

Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said Rehnquist, 80, will abstain from some of the cases argued during the two-week period that started Nov. 1. The chief justice, however, will take part in all cases argued during the subsequent two-week December argument session that began Nov. 29, she said.

``The chief justice has decided he will not participate in November cases unless the conference vote without him is 4-4,'' Arberg said. ``He is going to participate in the December cases.''

The news, coupled with the announcement last week that Rehnquist plans to administer the oath of office to President George W. Bush at the Jan. 20 inauguration, suggests the chief justice isn't planning to retire any time soon. Medical experts say Rehnquist, who has undergone a tracheotomy, chemotherapy and radiation, may have an especially aggressive form of thyroid cancer.

Superfund Ruling

In other cases, the court:

-- Limited the power of companies to sue other businesses and the federal government for the cost of cleaning up hazardous wastes. The justices ruled 7-2 that a disputed section of the Superfund law doesn't authorize companies to sue for cleanup costs unless they are facing a federal enforcement action. The decision left open the possibility that type of suit could be filed under a different section of the law.

-- Shielded a police officer in Washington state from an excessive-force lawsuit filed by a suspect who was shot in the back by the officer while trying to flee in a vehicle.

In the false-arrest ruling, the justices reversed a decision by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court had said an arrest on an invalid charge can't be upheld unless police could have filed a different charge over a ``closely related offense.''

Scalia said the 9th Circuit reasoning would have ``perverse consequences,'' giving officers an incentive not to give any reason for an arrest.

Ruling Reversed

The troopers pulled Jerome Anthony Alford over in 1997 after seeing him stop behind a disabled vehicle on a highway. The occupants of the disabled car told police they thought Alford was a police officer because his car had headlights that alternated flashing on and off.

The troopers said that, when they stopped Alford, they saw that he had a police scanner and handcuffs. A supervisor arrived and noticed that Alford had a tape-recorder that was recording his conversation with the officers.

The officers arrested Alford on a charge of violating Washington's Privacy Act, which makes it unlawful to record a private conversation without all parties' consent. Alford told the officers he had a copy of a court ruling that said the state privacy law didn't protect police officers on the job.

The charge later was dismissed, and Alford sued the two officers, claiming false arrest and a civil rights violation.

The case is Devenpeck v. Alford, 03-710.

Last Updated: December 13, 2004 14:04 EST

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