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Supreme Court: Search warrants don't give police the power to detain someone away from home

A warrant allowing police to search a house does not give them the authority to detain someone who is away from home at the time the search is being conducted, the U.S Supreme Court said on Tuesday.

Police investigating a drug case got a search warrant for an apartment on Long Island, New York, in 2005, after an informant claimed to have seen guns when he went there to buy drugs from a man known as "Polo."  While detectives watched the apartment, waiting for the time of the search, they saw a man matching Polo's description drive away.

They followed the car for almost a mile, then pulled it over. In the man's pocket, they found a set of keys.  They drove him back to the apartment, where officers found a gun and drugs in plain view.  It was later discovered that one of the keys opened the door of the apartment.

In a 6-3 ruling, the court on Tuesday said that the general power police have to detain someone at home during a search doesn't apply beyond the immediate area.  Police can, the court has ruled, detain someone at the place being searched for the sake of officer safety and to prevent a person from interfering with the effectiveness of the search.

But, said Justice Anthony Kennedy for the court, "Once an occupant is beyond the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched, the search-related law enforcement interests are diminished."

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, joined by Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.  Detaining "Polo" away from the apartment, he wrote, was justified "in light of the risks of flight, of evidence destruction, and of human injury present in this and similar cases."

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