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Motivation vs. Belief and Objective vs. Subjective in Criminal Law

In an interesting post on the Dorf on Law blog this morning, Sherry Colb explores the difference between motivation and belief in assessing the actions of both criminal defendants and police officers. 

Colb's post is an extension of her column posted at FindLaw, in which she criticizes the Supreme Court's decision in Michigan v. Fisher, released last December. In Fisher, the Court applied the "emergency aid" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement in holding that a police officer's entry into a home sans warrant was justified because, upon his arrival, the officer observed the defendant bleeding, screaming and throwing things inside the house. Colb opines that the "little-noticed" per curiam opinion "could ultimately undermine the constitutional requirement of 'probable cause.'"

Why? Because the Court held that whether or not a situation meets the "emergency aid" test is to be judged objectively rather than subjectively; i.e., the relevant question isn't what the officer on the scene believes, "but whether there was 'an objectively reasonable basis for believing' that medical assistance was needed, or persons were in danger."

If logically extended to the probable cause standard for a search, Colb says, this ruling could mean that:

an officer who knows that a person has committed no crime and harbors no evidence could, in theory, still arrest and search that person because appearances might have led another officer to conclude, reasonably, that the person did commit a crime.

In the Dorf post, Colb expands on her column, reflecting on the difference between a rule where an officer's motivations are irrelevant to one where his beliefs are irrelevant, and why the concepts of intent and motive are distinguishable when assessing a defendant's guilt:

Why distinguish intent and motive?  We do so because intent (or some level of awareness with respect to the likely consequences of one's actions) helps distinguish between innocent behavior and guilty behavior.  The person who unknowingly turns on a light switch that causes an explosion is an innocent person, despite having been the causal agent of a death.  Intent (or the beliefs under which an actor is operating) determines whether or not she is guilty at all.

Motivations, by contrast, generally turn someone who is already guilty into someone who is either worse than or not as bad as the typical guilty person.  They do not ordinarily either independently establish guilt or negate it.

She explores how this difference might come into play in the context of self-defense and hate crime sentence enhancements.

Though I'm not sure I agree that the Fisher decision is the death knell for the notion of probable cause, both of Colb's pieces are thought-provoking and worth a read.

Posted by Eric Lipman on August 18, 2010 at 12:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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