Balancing Police Authority and Citizen Rights: The Role of the Supreme Court

Rights and Responsibilities

The primary function of the United States Supreme Court is to determine whether laws, law enforcement, other such entities, or citizens violate the Constitution.  This panel of experienced judges sits bi-annually to hear cases from the nation (Lippman, 2010) and in recent years, many of these cases have dealt blows to the expansion of police powers.  Periodically a case comes before that august panel that reminds us that these men and women are wise and balanced.  The Court that sits today could perhaps be one of the best.

In a case decided on January 23, 2012, involving the 4th Amendment right of the American people to be secure in his or her homes, the Court appears to have made a very good decision.  In this particular case, the plaintiffs were two Burbank, California, police officers who had been sued by the defendant George Huff for violating his 4th Amendment right when the officers entered his home without a warrant (RAYBURN V HUFF, 2012).  On the surface, the case could appear to be a no-brainer, but the Supreme Court does not operate based on surface findings.

The facts of the case, as laid out in the complaint and subsequent decision, are:

  • The Police were responding to a concern by school officials that the son of Huff had made remarks at school to the effect that he was considering killing someone, possibly at school, possibly at home.  The officers went to the home to investigate when the boy did not show up for school, at the behest of school officials.
  • After difficulty reaching the child’s parents, Mrs. Huff brought the boy outside to talk to the police, which the police considered odd.
  • Mrs. Huff reacted oddly at various times and rushed back inside when queried about the possibility of guns in the home.
  • Two officers initially followed Mrs. Huff into the home through the open door and when Mr. Huff came into the room, he challenged their authority in being in his house.
  • The officers asked a few more questions and left, satisfied that there was nothing to be concerned about.  They did not search.

This would have been the end of the matter, but Mr. Huff believed his rights had been violated by the Burbank Officers, Darin Rayburn and Edmundo Zepeda.  He sued the partners and the Burbank Police Department and lost the initial case.  He appealed to the 9th Circuit Court which upheld the lower court’s finding of the facts but reversed the decision.  The Police Officers, in turn, appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The Balance of Rights

The Bill of Rights is a list of 10 Amendments, but each of these Amendments contains several separate provisions that from time to time are challenged through the Supreme Court.  Of the more common challenges involving the use of warrants by Criminal Justice professionals, searches involving the home tend to be most sacrosanct (Schmalleger, 2010).  This was one such case.

What makes this case so interesting is that what one would assume to be a simple matter becomes somewhat convoluted because of circumstances.  This case highlights the need for the Supreme Court because issues often arise wherein there exist contradictory issues; when this happens, the Court must intervene to clarify and provide balance to the matter.  This also demonstrates that the issue of rights is not as black and white as many may want it to be; there are shades of gray.

Another thing that makes this case interesting is that two separate courts had already supported both claims, so this case would resolve the issue in a very important way.

Some of the questions raised by this case are:

  • Do police have the right to enter a residence if no search is conducted?
  • If so under what circumstances?
  • If not, why not?

With this in mind, consider the answers to these questions, as provided by the Supreme Court in Rayburn v Huff, Number 11-208.

Responsibility Trumps Rights

 In a case involving the Sedition Act of 1918, the US Supreme Court addressed the question of whether the Rights enumerated in the Constitution were absolute or subject to exceptions.  In that case, Schenck v. United States (1919), the Court dealt with the issue of free speech; and the 1st Amendment.  They concluded that free speech applies only if the speech does not in some manner cause harm to others.  As an example, the court suggested that yelling “fire” in a crowded theater would not qualify as free speech, for in so doing falsely, people could be injured.  Hence with this decision, the court set a precedent for striking a balance between rights and responsibilities that has lasted for generations into our day even though this decision was overturned in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969).

Indeed, there has been much written over the years regarding rights, but little to remind the public that along with those rights come responsibilities.  This is important, for often today, we hear people cry their rights have been trampled, but on further questioning, the case takes a turn that indicates that they do not understand the responsibility that comes with those rights.

In the case of Rayburn v Huff, the responsibility of police in this particular circumstance trumps the right of the homeowner to require a warrant for entry.

Criminal and Accomplice Liability

 This case also demonstrates the concepts of Criminal and Accomplice Liability.  In the first instance, there was no crime committed by the homeowner and Huff later filed suit against the Burbank officers claiming, in effect that these had broken the law.  The case cites the name Rayburn, for the ranking officer, but his partner, Zepeda, is an accomplice.  If the Supreme Court were to find against Rayburn, he would have criminal liability and his partner would be by default, an accomplice.  The Supreme Court did not find it so in this manner.  Instead, it ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

Intentions Count

 There is one very important lesson all can derive from this case, especially police officers who must daily make quick life-or-death decisions frequently scrutinized by judges and juries.  The lesson presented by the Supreme Court is this:  Intentions count.

The officers entered the residence with the best of intentions, namely, concern for life.  Given the circumstances:  Threats made by the Huff boy; He had been bullied at school; the irrational behavior of the mother rushing back into the home when asked about weapons, easily led the officers to believe that it was prudent to enter behind Mrs. Huff; in the interests of public safety, namely that of the family within.  They did not conduct a search, nor did they make an arrest, for there was no crime.

Because their actions were consistent with their stated desire to protect life, the Supreme Court ruled that they were justified in entering the premises.


Something that must never be forgotten in any case involving presumed criminal acts is intention.  This applied in the case of Rayburn v Huff, for the officers, although doing something considered by law criminal (actus reus), were lacking in the necessary mindset (mens rea) for the conduct to be criminal.  Because there was not present both concepts, there was no crime.  The same must be considered in every case a District Attorney prosecutes, a judge presides over, and a jury decides.  These two elements illustrate nicely the notion that for every right, there is a corresponding responsibility.  Only by striking the right balance can the criminal justice system function as it should:  All citizens should do their part to help achieve this balance, but when there is a question on the matter, we, fortunately, have the US Supreme Court to settle the issue.