Supreme Court Eases Rules For Illegal Stops

WASHINGTON – On Monday, in a 5-3 ruling, the Supreme Court relaxed the so-called exclusionary rule by giving police more power to stop people on the streets and question them.

The decision gives police more leeway to stop pedestrians and “fish for evidence,” even if they have done nothing wrong. The 5-3 ruling also upheld the use of drug evidence which was found on a Utah man who was illegally stopped and questioned by police in Salt Lake City.

Justice Clarence Thomas opinioned that since the man had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation, the illegal stop could be ignored. Thomas also wrote for the court stating that the warrant was valid in this case as “it predated (the police officer’s) investigation, and it was entirely unconnected with the stop.”

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, all agreed with Thomas.

The Utah case began when a Salt Lake City officer stopped Edward Strieff, the man who was walking away from a house. It was suspected that drugs were being dealt at the house. When the officer asked to see his identification, it was found that Strieff had an outstanding warrant for a “traffic violation,” and he was arrested. Upon search, the officer found a bag of methamphetamine and charged Strieff with unlawful possession of an illegal drug. Prosecutors argued that the officer lacked “reasonable suspicion” when he stopped and questioned Strieff.

Three women justices of the court strongly opposed the ruling, saying that it will encourage police to randomly stop and question people. They warned that the police must not violate their constitutional rights against unreasonable searches. According to the women justices, racial minorities in major cities will be strongly affected with the ruling.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent stating, “The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: 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.” She wrote, “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.”

She further wrote that allowing police to stop people and “fish for evidence” is a serious mistake. It will only give police a reason to target pedestrians arbitrarily. There is also a risk of treating members of the community as second-class citizens. “The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner. But it is not secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny,” she added.

In a separate dispute, Justice Elena Kagan noted that millions of people have outstanding warrants. She and Sotomayor both pointed out that Ferguson, Mo. had 16,000 outstanding warrants on file in a population of 21,000. “The state of California has 2.5 million outstanding arrest warrants (a number corresponding to about 9 percent of its adult population),” said Kagan. Kagan’s dissent was supported by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Thomas rebutted the dissenters, saying that the case did not involve a “flagrant violation” of the Fourth Amendment. He doubted that police will engage in dragnet searches if the exclusionary rule is not applied. “We think this outcome is unlikely,” he stated.

The exclusionary rule was adopted by the Supreme Court in 1914 for federal cases, which later expanded its reach in 1961 to state and local police. The rule required judges to throw out evidence if a police officer or federal agent conducted an unreasonable search without reasonable suspicion.

However, the rule was relaxed by the court in the last decade led by Chief Justice John Roberts, particularly in cases where officers made an innocent mistake or relied on a defective warrant.

The drug conviction against Strieff has now been reversed by the Utah Supreme Court on the grounds that the illegal stop required throwing out the evidence against him.

Justice Sotomayor wrote that allowing police to stop and question people is a serious mistake as it will give officers a reason to target pedestrians arbitrarily.

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