County of Riverside, et al. v. McLaughlin, et al.
Decided on May 13, 1991; 499 US 44




A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (4th Amendment)

B. Legal Question Presented: 

Did Riverside County violate the constitutional requirement for prompt probable cause determinations?  How is "prompt" defined?


A. Background:

McLaughlin was arrested without a warrant, and he brought a class action suit alleging that Riverside County failed to provide prompt judicial determinations of probable cause. The County's policy was to combine probable cause determinations with arraignment procedures which were required to be conducted within two days of arrest, excluding weekends and holidays.
The County moved to dismiss the complaint, asserting that McLaughlin lacked standing because the time for providing him a prompt probable cause determination had already passed and he had not shown that he would again be subject to the allegedly unconstitutional conduct.
The District Court accepted McLaughlin's second amended complaint which named additional respondents as individual plaintiffs and class representatives who were still in custody. The court granted class certification and issued a preliminary injunction, requiring that all persons arrested by the County without a warrant be provided probable cause determinations within 36 hours of arrest, except in exigent circumstances.
The Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that Riverside County's practice was not in accord with promptness requirements because no more than 36 hours were needed to complete the administrative steps incident to arrest. 
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Dan Stormer argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Richard P. Herman, Ben Margolis, and Elizabeth Spector.
Timothy T. Coates argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Peter J. Ferguson, Michael A. Bell, and Martin Stein.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Robert M. Rotstein, John A. Powell, Paul L. Hoffman, and Judith Resnik filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae urging affirmance.
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of California by John K. Van de Kamp, Attorney General; Richard B. Iglehart, Chief Assistant Attorney General; Harley D. Mayfield, Senior Assistant Attorney General; and Robert M. Foster and Frederick R. Millar, Jr., Supervising Deputy Attorneys General; and for the District Attorney, County of Riverside, California, by Grover C. Trask II.

"States have a strong interest in protecting public safety by taking into custody those persons who are reasonably suspected of having engaged in criminal activity, even where there has been no opportunity for a prior judicial determination of probable cause... On the other hand, prolonged detention based on incorrect or unfounded suspicion may unjustly 'imperil [a] suspect's job, interrupt his source of income, and impair his family relationships...'

[S]ome delays are inevitable. For example, where, as in Riverside County, the probable cause determination is combined with arraignment, there will be delays caused by paperwork and logistical problems. Records will have to be reviewed, charging documents drafted, appearance of counsel arranged, and appropriate bail determined. On weekends, when the number of arrests is often higher and available resources tend to be limited, arraignments may get pushed back even further. 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.  But flexibility has its limits... A state has no legitimate interest in detaining for extended periods individuals who have been arrested without probable cause...

This vague standard [of what is 'prompt'] simply has not provided sufficient guidance. Instead, it has led to a flurry of systemic challenges to city and county practices, putting federal judges in the role of making legislative judgments and overseeing local jailhouse operations... Our task in this case is to articulate more clearly the boundaries of what is permissible under the Fourth Amendment. Although we hesitate to announce that the Constitution compels a specific time limit, it is important to provide some degree of certainty so that States and counties may establish procedures with confidence that they fall within constitutional bounds... [w]e believe that a jurisdiction that provides judicial determinations of probable cause within 48 hours of arrest will, as a general matter, comply with the promptness requirement... for this reason, such jurisdictions will be immune from systemic challenges. 

Where an arrested individual does not receive a probable cause determination within 48 hours, the calculus changes. In such a case, the arrested individual does not bear the burden of proving an unreasonable delay. Rather, the burden shifts to the government to demonstrate the existence of a bona fide emergency or other extraordinary circumstance. The fact that, in a particular case, it may take longer than 48 hours to consolidate pretrial proceedings does not qualify as an extraordinary circumstance. Nor, for that matter, do intervening weekends. A jurisdiction that chooses to offer combined proceedings must do so as soon as is reasonably feasible, but in no event later than 48 hours after arrest...
Everyone agrees that the police should make every attempt to minimize the time a presumptively innocent individual spends in jail. One way to do so is to provide a judicial determination of probable cause immediately upon completing the administrative steps incident to arrest - i.e., as soon as the suspect has been booked, photographed, and fingerprinted... For the reasons we have articulated, we conclude that Riverside County is entitled to combine probable cause determinations with arraignments. The record indicates, however, that the County's current policy and practice do not comport fully with the principles we have outlined. The County's current policy is to offer combined proceedings within two days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays. As a result, persons arrested on Thursdays may have to wait until the following Monday before they receive a probable cause determination. The delay is even longer if there is an intervening holiday. Thus, the County's regular practice exceeds the 48-hour period we deem constitutionally permissible, meaning that the County is not immune from systemic challenges, such as this class action.
Held:  The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined minority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined minority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance with the lower court's ruling; the United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded the ruling of the Court of Appeals for the Southern District of California in a 5-4 vote; giving the ACLU an apparent loss.