High Court: Probable-Cause Hearing Must Be Held Within 48 Hours of Arrest

A SHARPLY divided United States Supreme Court ruled May 13 that a person arrested without a warrant can be jailed for up to 48 hours before being granted a probable-cause hearing. In a 5-to-4 ruling, the court vacated a decision of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals that a 36-hour time limit was needed in California.

In 1975, the high court outlawed a practice in Florida of jailing those arrested without warrants for 30 days before conducting a hearing before a judge to determine if police had probable cause to make the arrest. At that time, the court said a ``prompt'' hearing is required by law, but refused to set specific time constraints.

``Although we hesitate to announce that the Constitution compels a specific time limit, it is important to provide some degree of certainty,'' the majority reasoned in its latest ruling, establishing its 48-hour limit in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said that if a specific time limit is needed, 24 hours is ample before an initial judicial hearing.

The court also announced it would decide if refugees who flee their country to avoid forced induction into a guerrilla militia are eligible for political asylum. The Bush administration says allowing such claims could give thousands of illegal aliens an excuse to stay in the US. And in a case to be argued next term, the court will decide if the Endangered Species Act applies to federally financed projects abroad. The government contends the act does not apply overseas.

The probable-cause decision stemmed from a 1987 suit filed by Donald Lee McLaughlin against Riverside County, Calif. He said the civil rights of prisoners at the Riverside County Jail were violated because they were being detained without a ``prompt'' probable-cause hearing after arrest. The county normally waited 48 hours for such hearings, but weekends and holidays could leave a person incarcerated for more than 100 hours without a finding of probable cause, Mr. McLaughlin alleged. The high court said such an excessive delay is illegal, but that the 48-hour time period -- uniform under California state law -- is not illegal.

``In our view, the Fourth Amendment permits a reasonable postponement of a probable cause determination while the police cope with the everyday problems of processing suspects through an overly burdened criminal justice system,'' wrote Justice O'Connor, who was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Byron White, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter.

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