In a controversial new decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that evidence collected by police during illegal stops can still be admissible in court if there are outstanding warrants. As the New York Times reports, the 5-3 split decision has drawn concern from advocates all over the country and inspired a dissenting opinion Justice Sonia Sotomayor that is being called “remarkable.”
The case, Utah v. Strieff, No. 14-1373, involved Edward Strieff of South Salt Lake. Strieff was pulled over by Officer Douglas Fackrell after leaving a house that police believed (due to an anonymous tip) was involved in narcotics activity. Later, courts deemed that the anonymous tip was not sufficient grounds to pull Strieff over—but when Fackrell had, he discovered Strieff had a warrant out for a traffic violation. A further search produced methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Strieff had tried to suppress the drugs and paraphernalia found—but to no avail.
"Officer Fackrell was at most negligent," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the court majority. "There is no evidence that Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct." The majority opinion also stated that illegal searches of this kind do not violate citizens' Fourth Amendment as long as the warrant against the citizen in question is valid.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was passionate in her dissent against the decision, asserting that the ruling would not only unnecessarily expand police powers but also continue to foster racial profiling. "This case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights," she wrote. "It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged."
"For generations, black and brown parents have given their children 'the talk,'" she added, "instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them."
A law professor at the University of Chicago called Sotomayor's dissent remarkable for its racial sensitivity—and the effect of the decision nationwide could be even greater. Sotomayor points out that there are nearly 8 million state and federal warrants currently outstanding, many of which are for minor offenses.
This opinion broadly expands the government’s ability to use evidence during questionable searches. Defense Counsel will need to be vigilant in analyzing these issues in cases where a potential illegal search occurred. The military applications of this opinion can be numerous. Imagine a situation where a Service member has an outstanding civilian warrant, and the Military Police conduct what is later determined as a illegal search of a vehicle and find evidence, that evidence can still be potentially used in trial. This could even be expanded to the searches of barracks rooms and quarters on base. This opinion severely erodes what was once on considered a time-honored protection against evidence that is illegally searched and seized.
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