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U.S. top court limits police detentions far from crime scene

By Jonathan Stempel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday made it harder for police to detain people far away from a suspected crime scene when the only justification for the detention is to make it safer and easier to conduct a search of the scene.

By a 6-3 ruling that did not follow its typical ideological divisions, the court said police in Long Island, New York, violated defendant Chunon Bailey's rights by detaining him so they could search his basement apartment a mile away.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that police may detain people in connection with executing a search warrant, but need another rationale to detain people far from the scene.

"Once an occupant is beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched, the search-related law enforcement interests are diminished and the intrusiveness of the detention is more severe," Kennedy wrote.

Neither Bailey's lawyer nor the U.S. Department of Justice immediately responded to requests for comment.

Twenty-four U.S. states had filed a brief supporting the government, while Bailey drew support from several criminal-defense groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bailey had been pulled over in a parking lot by police who had tailed him and another man for about five minutes after he had left a home in Wyandanch, New York.

This occurred after a confidential informant told police he had observed a gun while buying drugs at the home from a man known as "Polo," whom Bailey resembled. The police soon found Bailey's keys to the home during a "patdown" search.

Bailey was unable to persuade his trial judge to suppress the key and statements made to police as evidence resulting from an unreasonable seizure, and was later found guilty of firearms and drug possession charges.

His conviction was upheld in July 2011 by a federal appeals court in New York. Tuesday's decision reverses that ruling, but the Supreme Court left open whether the patdown search, assuming it was valid, yielded information that justified the detention. It returned the case to a lower court for further proceedings.

Joining Kennedy's majority opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia, all three appointees of Republican presidents, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, all appointees of Democratic presidents.

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Breyer said the police acted reasonably, and that the majority drew a line based on "indeterminate geography" that did not properly address concerns arising from the Fourth Amendment over privacy, safety, the destruction of evidence and the risk of flight.

The case is Bailey v. U.S., U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-770.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Howard Goller and Mohammad Zargham)

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