With the arrest of Raymond Clark on charges of murdering Annie Le, the New Haven police now seem to be acknowledging that he was more than a mere "person of interest" when they handcuffed him and took him into custody two days earlier. He was surely a suspect then, despite the police disclaimers. The only definite way of knowing what his status was at the time of his initial detention is to see the search warrants signed by the judge and the affidavit submitted in support of that search warrant. If the affidavit alleged, and the warrant found, "probable cause," then his initial detention was probably valid. If, however, the judge authorized his arrest in handcuffs based on him merely being a "person of interest," then serious constitutional problems arise. But, according to the Yale Daily News, the authorities have refused to disclose any of these documents, even the name of the judge who signed the warrant.
It would be a sad day in America if anyone deemed by the police to be a "person of interest" -- which could include anyone who worked with, knew, or came in contact with the victim -- could be handcuffed, placed in a police car and hauled down to the police station, even if only for a few hours. This is precisely the sort of conduct that we, as a nation, condemn when carried out in other parts of the world. Our Constitution demands that a seizure -- roughly the equivalent of an arrest -- not be unreasonable. In general that means that the police must demonstrate to a judge that they have probable cause for believing that the person may be guilty of a crime.
The evidence of Clark's complicity in Le's death now seems substantial, if there was in fact a DNA match and if his card swipe and e-mails confirm his contact with her just prior to her disappearance. But the evidence that he murdered her in premeditated fashion seems sparse. Indeed, the manner by which her body was hidden appears to be inconsistent with long term planning. As a matter of law, however, premeditation can occur over a very short period of time. Moreover, if we ultimately learn that Le was sexually assaulted by Clark -- and I've heard nothing to suggest this -- her death would be classified as felony murder under the law of most states.
There is much yet to be learned about this horrible crime, most particularly with regard to the motive of the killer. At trial, if there is a trial rather than a plea, Clark will benefit from a presumption of innocence, not only with regard to whether he committed the crime, but also with regard to whether the crime was murder, manslaughter or something else.