The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Utah v. Strieff struck another blow to the Fourth Amendment. Over the years, challenges to the Fourth Amendment, which protects us from unlawful search and seizure, have come before the courts. The law is a unique and flexible entity, which must be open to changing with the times and with the unique aspects of specific cases. Unfortunately, rights are never seemingly given, only infringed upon. So you can guarantee that with every challenge to the Fourth Amendment, we lose just a little bit of our rights; so little in fact that we don’t even notice. Eventually these small restrictions that we don’t notice, end up choking us.
This case brings another unique challenge before the courts. A stop that was deemed unlawful, which led to the discovery and seizing of narcotics, resulted in an additional discovery. Strieff was found to have had a valid arrest warrant. He was eventually arrested on the warrant and charged with the narcotics on his person.
Let’s stop right here. In the real world, if you have an arrest warrant, you will be legally searched and arrested. If the subject had drugs on them at the time, a search incident to arrest would have uncovered them. This leads to an argument of inevitable discovery. If the warrant was discovered first, none of this would be a question. It wasn’t. The stop was based on shaky ground later deemed unlawful. So, let’s ignore the faulty basis for which the police thought they had a valid stop.
Now, the police have stopped Strieff unlawfully, and have seized narcotics. What should they do now? No cop wants to hear that the evidence he just seized can’t be used. Definitely, no cop is going to let a guy walk away after discovering a warrant. So what do you do?
Everyday people are stopped because the police think they have a violation, or because they think the person they stopped is someone else. It is not a rare case. From a legal perspective, if you unlawfully stop someone and find a warrant, you are generally covered under good faith doctrine. If you happened to find contraband, but know the stop turned out to be illegal, you do what all cops do: You push it through and wait for it to get stopped by the District Attorney.
District Attorney’s are no fools. They know the police bend the law to make arrests. Part of their job is to filter out these bad arrests. Police throw mud at the wall to see what sticks all the time. Most cases that have multiple charges at arrest are tuned down to one or two by the court date. This is because the police know most charges won’t stick. There is a huge difference between probable cause and beyond a reasonable doubt.
The case, referring to Utah v. Strieff, is just this. A case where the police threw mud at the wall to see what would stick, and unfortunately it did. In this case, the arrest warrant should stick and the contraband should be thrown out.
The new ruling by the Supreme Court is another chip away at Fourth Amendment rights. While the linchpin in this case is the arrest warrant, it is dubious that it will hold for long. The court justified the ruling with a statement from Clarence Thomas who said, “such searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment when the warrant is valid and unconnected to the conduct that prompted the stop.”
Justice Sotomayor issued a scathing dissent from the 5-3 decision. Joined by Justices’ Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elana Kagan, Sotomayor wrote the following: “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. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”
Sotomayor points out that police, both in Utah and nationwide, frequently run warrant checks on illegally stopped citizens. She believes that this fact, combined with the eight million active arrest warrants in the U.S., will see police use this verdict to engage the public in an even more aggressive stop and seize campaign. The dissenting opinion also points out the obvious racial bias by police and that people of color are more often victims of police discrimination and targeting.
“It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. Your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights,” and “Unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives” Sotomayor wrote in her dissenting opinion.
This case, while on the surface seems innocuous and dependent on very specific circumstances; it is a fracturing of the constitution on a fundamental level. The Fourth Amendment was written to protect us from over zealous officials and to protect our inherent rights to freedom and personal property. The constitution has never and will never be, brought down with a single blow. It is decisions like these that slowly erode our liberties until eventually we will have none left at all.
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