Tuesday, February 22, 2005

United States v. Osife (9th Cir. - February 22, 2005)

This opinion may be the best one that Judge O'Scannlain has written in a long while. It's scholarly, incisive, none-too-long, and keeps things moving. Ultimately, Judge O'Scannlain holds that the police can search an automobile incident to an arrest even if the arrestee is outside of the vehicle and there's no chance that the search is either necessary for the officer safety or that the search will lead to evidence relevant to the arrest (here, the defendant had been arrested for public urination and was handcuffed in the back seat of a police car at the time of the search of his vehicle).

You can agree or not agree with Judge O'Scannlain's holding on the merits. Regardless, he does a masterful job of explaining both the contemporary Supreme Court precedent on this issue as well as -- and this is the important part -- the role of federal appellate courts in following and interpreting evolving Supreme Court holdings in a particular field. It's not that Judge O'Scannlain says anything particularly new. He doesn't. But he explains the issue concisely, fairly accurately, and in a way that I think would make sense even to those unfamiliar to the field. It's the Supreme Court's job to overturn its own precedent, even when -- as here -- the Supreme Court has (fairly clearly) indicated that it is indeed inclined to do so and the federal appellate court is of the opinion that such a change would be wise.

The opinion is a good read on an interesting topic that can easily start a conversation about the appropriate role of precedent in the federal system.