Many people, lawyers included, ask me what it was like to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. My answer usually goes something like this. It was a great privilege and honor to argue before the High Court. My case involved the Fourth Amendment. It was a search and seizure question involving consent to search a car. We had won the case in the trial court (the circuit court) in Miami. The State of Florida through the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office appealed the case through the Third District Court of Appeals (which is located in Miami, next to Florida International University). The state court of appeal agreed with our argument in the trial court and affirmed the trial judge. The State of Florida then appealed the case to the Florida Supreme Court, which agreed with our position and that of the two lower courts. The State of Florida, through the Attorney General’s Office, decided to ask the United States Supreme Court to hear the case. They did so by filing what is known as a petition for writ of certiorari. The Supreme Court hears only a tiny percentage of the cases that they are asked to decide. When the Supreme Court granted the state’s petition for writ of certiorari, the defense knew it was “bad news”, since the very conservative United States Supreme Court did not, in our opinion, agree to hear the case simply to affirm the Florida Supreme Court. The Court, then led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, was well known for favoring the police over individuals.
I argued the case against two prosecutors. Representing the United States, was John Roberts, now the Chief Justice of the United States, who was then the Deputy Solicitor General of the United States, and also against the Deputy Attorney General from the State of Florida. The oral argument was very interesting. Each of the Justices but one asked me questions during my presentation. Should you wish to hear the argument in its entirety, go to www.jeffweiner.com and click on the link to hear the argument.
Unfortunately, as expected, the Supreme Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court and held that a consent to search a car gives consent not only to search the car, but also all closed but unlocked containers in the vehicle. Even though, I believe, when a person gives consent to search a car, they are only giving consent to search the car and not consenting to a search of their purse, briefcase, backpack or even a paper bag which is rolled up. The majority of the Supreme Court disagreed and gave the police new powers and authority to search a vehicle, expanding the scope of what they may lawfully search and allowing them to do so beyond that for which consent was given. The decision, in my opinion, was one of many, which have eroded our individual rights in order to give more power to the police. I am not anti-police, but I am very much pro-constitutional rights and the decision in Florida v. Jimeno was wrong and unnecessary. But, rulings of the United States Supreme Court are the law of the land. Whether we like the decisions or not, they must be followed.
John Roberts was courteous and a polite and a pleasure to spend time with. All the Justices on the Supreme Court were extremely attentive and respectful. They were well-prepared and asked probing and thoughtful questions. To my surprise, after the argument was concluded, I was approached by a justice of the Florida Supreme Court who was in the Supreme Court gallery as a guest of the High Court during my oral argument on the case. The Florida justice was very kind and indicated that he thought we would win the case and that the Florida Supreme Court ruling would be upheld. But it was not to be.
I love being a criminal defense lawyer and representing people, not only in trial courts, but on appeals as well. I am convinced that a criminal defense lawyer who argues appeals, in addition to representing clients in the trial court, gains a better understanding of the dynamics of representing people and is a more complete lawyer. I have enjoyed arguing cases on appeal throughout the United States and am grateful for the opportunity to have done so. Only a tiny percentage of lawyers actually argue cases before the United States Supreme Court. I am fortunate to be one of them.