By Dhar Law
Last blog post, we discussed illegal search and seizure laws. This post will dive deeper into the Supreme Court ruling, which has the potential to broaden police authority to stop people on the street for any reason to check their criminal background.
The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizures by police officers, with the exclusionary rule expelling any evidence obtained in violation of these rights. On June 20, 2016, the Supreme Court made a new ruling in regards to the Fourth Amendment, bringing into question the scope of the exclusionary rule. With the new ruling, even if evidence is unlawfully obtained by an officer, in the event of an outstanding warrant, the evidence is now admissible in court.
The case of Utah v. Edward Strieff
The case in question is Utah vs. Strieff. Edward Strieff was walking down the street and stopped by an officer after leaving a house in question. Officer Fackrell received intel from a source saying there was suspicion of illegal drug activity in the house. Later, it was recorded that the officer was acting in “good faith”, and that he had reasonable suspicion to approach Edward.
Strieff supplied his identification per Fackrell’s request, and once Fackrell had dispatch run Strieff’s ID, it turned out he had a minor traffic warrant outstanding. Fackrell arrested Strieff, and after searching him, he found drug paraphernalia and a bag of methamphetamine. Officer Fackrell then charged Strieff with unlawful drug possession.
Was the search illegal? What was the probable cause for the traffic stop?
Strieff argued that the search was illegal, thus making the evidence obtained inadmissible in court. But the state disagreed and said that due to the discovery of the warrant, the exclusionary rule no longer applied.
This case, along with many like it, makes people wonder if the new ruling vastly extends police power and condones governmental overreach. Justice Sonia Sotomayor liberally stated her personal dissent, saying, “this case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants-even if you are doing nothing wrong. If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.”
The police win, but our Fourth Amendment rights lose
This new move is a significant win for police everywhere, essentially inviting them to make illegal stops without having a viable reason in doing so. This may change a recent decision in Boston, MA, where police officers were banned back in 2015 for stopping vehicles solely because they suspected the motorists to be in possession of drugs. Massachusetts is making an effort to decriminalize marijuana in an attempt to refocus police activity on more serious crimes.
With the new ruling, even if someone is pulled over illegally and is noted to have an outstanding warrant, officers have free reign to search and seize anything on the person or in the vehicle, and make an arrest. This pretty much nullifies the previous ban, giving officers liberty to pull anyone over, as long as they have a “hunch” of illegal behavior. It also does not align with the Massachusetts constitution to pass decriminalization.
For a while now, what is considered “reasonable” suspicion has been blurred. Police have been given a lot of leeway when stopping and searching individuals, sometimes using invalid warrants. This new ruling is just another prime example of expanding police authority at the expense of the general public, weakening the already fragile relationship between the protectors and the people they serve.