Police can use evidence found during illegal stops, Supreme Court rules

U.S. Supreme Court. Larry Downing/Reuters

The U.S. Supreme Court today delivered a damaging blow to the Fourth Amendment “by making it even easier for law enforcement to evade its requirement that stops be based on reasonable suspicion,” as a New York Times editorial puts it.

Justices ruled 5 to 3 [PDF] that a police officer’s illegal stop of a man on the street should not prevent using against him any evidence obtained from a search connected to that stop.

In other words, “courts need not suppress evidence of a crime, even if it was obtained through an illegal stop,” reports Nina Totenberg at NPR:

The Supreme Court long has held that when police illegally stop or search someone without, at minimum, reasonable suspicion, any incriminating evidence that is found cannot be used in court. There are, however, exceptions to this rule — and on Monday the court carved out a new and big one, giving police far broader authority to search people who are stopped for no reason.

The decision came in the case of Edward Strieff, who was stopped after leaving a house that that was under police observation; police had received an anonymous tip that the house was being used for drug dealing.

Though narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell later admitted he had no reason to believe Strieff had done anything wrong, he stopped him, demanded that he identify himself, and detained him while radioing in to see if there were any outstanding warrants against Strieff. As it turned out there was one — for a minor traffic offense — so the detective searched Streiff, and found a small amount of methamphetamines.

The Utah Supreme Court later threw out the drug conviction because it stemmed from an illegal stop. But the Supreme Court reinstated the conviction Monday.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor's fiery dissent is worth reading in entirety, and explains beautifully how these purportedly "random" stops overwhelmingly target low-income Americans who are not white.

From the Washington Post:

Sotomayor — “writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences” — produced the kind of personal essay that has made the court’s only Hispanic member a hero to liberals and caused conservatives to label her an activist.

“The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner,” Sotomayor wrote. “But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this scrutiny.”

She referenced writers Michelle Alexander, W.E.B Du Bois and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and wrote of the conversations that minority parents “for generations” have had with their children, “out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”

“By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time,” Sotomayor wrote. “It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

UTAH v. STRIEFF: CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF UTAH [supremecourt.gov]

Notable Replies

  1. tekk says:

    This pretty much means the end of defense, from what I can tell. The easiest way to handle a defense case, since you have a hard time proving a negative, is to show that the evidence was collected illegally and get it thrown out.If they're allowed to use illegally gathered evidence then I guess we get to see that incarceration rate get even higher.

  2. Legitimizing stop-n-frisk and racial profiling is not making the highest court in the land look very supreme to me.

  3. Boy do we need two new judges in a hurry!

  4. They call Sotomayor an activist because she is not objective. Objective here means "you agree with me."

  5. The mind boggles at such numbers. And I'm sure they're used as supporting evidence that non-white people are all bad.

    [I'm not a lawyer]

    I can see the reasoning, that a warrant was levied previously and the warrantee should be aware of their warranted-ness (and that's a terrible sentence, sorry), but I'm sure that's cold comfort to the folks getting stopped and regularly harassed.

    The other issue, to me, is that Strieff was nailed because of a small amount of meth. The drug laws in this country desperately need reform.

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