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Supreme Court improperly gives short-shrift to trial judge’s essential function in eyeballing witnesses at a suppression hearing

Dec 11, 2009 Supreme Court improperly gives short-shrift to trial judge’s essential function in eyeballing witnesses at a suppression hearing

Appellate judges repeatedly refuse to disturb trial judges’ sound discretion in assessing witness credibility in denying a criminal defendant’s motion to suppress evidence.

Consequently, appellate judges should also refuse to disturb trial judge’s sound discretion in assessing witness credibility in granting a criminal defendant’s motion to suppress evidence.

Unfortunately, on December 7, 2009, the United States Supreme Court overrode a state trial judge’s essential assessment of witness credibility, by reversing a suppression order. The Supreme Court relied on the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s general requirement that a search and seizure at one’s home be through a court-issued warrant. Michigan v. Fisher, ___ U.S. ___ (Dec. 7, 2009).

Thank you to Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for pointing out Fisher‘s severe error in substituting the Supreme Court’s assessment of credibility for the credibility assessment of the trial judge, who was the only judge to have eyeballed the witness(es) at the suppression hearing. The gist of Justice Stevens’s dissent follows:

Today, without having heard Officer Goolsby’s testimony, this Court decides that the trial judge got it wrong. I am not persuaded that he did, but even if we make that assumption, it is hard to see how the Court is justified in micromanaging the day-to-day business of state tribunals making fact-intensive decisions of this kind. We ought not usurp the role of the factfinder when faced with a close question of the reasonableness of an officer’s actions, particularly in a case tried in a state court. I therefore respectfully dissent.

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