WASHINGTON — In the midst of an opinion on the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Supreme Court of the United States surprised the legal world by laying down a sweeping, definitive answer to the classic legal question of “What is a reasonable person?”
The holding threw legal experts off guard as it did not appear to be the central question in the case, City of Petaluma v. Thompson. While no decision made by the Supreme Court can be considered routine, the highest court in the land usually decides on specified questions, often quite narrowly. In Thompson, the Court was asked to determine whether or not a booth staffed by police officers at a local street fair could be considered the same as the premises of a police station.
“Honestly, it was kind of surprising the Court even agreed to hear this case,” observed constitutional law scholar Adam Larkin, “Nothing in the Ninth Circuit’s decision seemed remotely controversial, and nothing in the oral arguments indicated they were ever going to tackle the issue of a reasonable person.”
In July 2009, Jared Thompson attended the Petaluma Art & Garden Festival. He claimed he was subject to an unreasonable seizure when he visited a booth run by the Petaluma Police Department on behalf of the Peace Officers Association of Petaluma. Claiming he did not feel free to leave the booth and feeling pressured by the presence of the officers, Thompson made an unsolicited admission to a string of burglaries leading to his immediate arrest.
The District Court agreed to the City of Petaluma’s motion for summary judgement and Thompson appealed. In affirming the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling that there was no comparison to the pressures of a police department and thus no Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure, the Court opted to go further and address the issue of “whether a reasonable person in the same or similar situation would not feel free to leave the premises of a booth run by police officers” by defining what it viewed as a reasonable person.
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia penned the majority opinion, joined by seven other justices. Below is an excerpt of the decision outlining the legal definition of a reasonable person:
“Yet again we come to that most bedeviling character in our legal system, originally known as the ‘reasonable man’ and now, in these more delicate times, the ‘reasonable person.’ Throughout legal discourse, all that was clear about the person was that nothing about the person was clear. Seeing this as an important opportunity to, once and for all, define this character, the time has come to give future courts a basis for which to reference so that their “reasonable person” is a universal figure:
“The reasonable person’s name is Norm, and if female Norma. He enjoys grilling in his backyard and has been known to get together with friends to watch the Packers. He has a couple of kids and considers himself used to his wife. The reasonable person works in sales and finds his boss to be dumber than he is. His favorite restaurant is Outback and he thinks Peter Gabriel should have never left Genesis. His favorite font is Papyrus.
“The reasonable person has a habit of stealing pens. He greatly enjoys the look and feel of jorts. The reasonable person will routinely strip naked in public places while singing the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’. The reasonable person enjoys wearing push-up bras when he thinks no one is watching him. He is inexplicably anxious in the presence of the Amish.
“The reasonable person cares not for the French.
“The reasonable person will traditionally kill a drifter in celebration of Columbus Day. He has sometimes spent entire weeks subsisting on nothing but moonshine and Sunny Delight. Despite a distaste for politics, the reasonable person has been arrested several times for stalking United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He honestly feels Sarah Chalke was the better Becky on television’s “Rosanne”. He has an unhealthy interest in Tom Hanks.
With this in mind, what would a reasonable person do if faced with the same or similar situation as faced by Thompson? Clearly, the reasonable person would not have been at the art fair that day; rather he would have been at the Denny’s in Vallejo, eating a Salisbury steak with no pants on while screaming the words to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” to the restaurant’s fleeing patrons and frightened staff. Clearly, a reasonable person would have never done what Mr. Thompson did. Affirmed.”
Inspired by Dubya