On Monday the US Supreme Court ruled to uphold evidence gathered during an illegal investigatory stop in Utah. The case, Utah vs. Strieff, has wide implications for the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.
The Supreme Court decided that even if the stop of Edward Strieff by narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell was illegal, the evidence gathered during that stop is admissible in court for Strieff’s prosecution. Strieff was stopped by detective Fackrell after he was observed leaving a suspected drug house. Fackrell found drug contraband on Strieff only minutes after the stop, and then discovered an outstanding warrant for Strieff’s arrest. The Supreme Court ruled that the discovery of a valid, pre-existing warrant unconnected to the investigation was enough to make the search and evidence legal and that “Officer Fackrell’s purpose was not to conduct a suspicionless fishing expedition but was to gather information about activity inside a house whose occupants were legitimately suspected of dealing drugs.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor warned that the decision was a clear violation of the 4th amendment:
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. 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. Because the Fourth Amendment should prohibit, not permit, such misconduct, I dissent.
The dissenting opinion cited the mass criminalization of large portions of the US population, which is now exposed to legalized violations of their 4th amendment rights, saying that:
- Utah lists over 180,000 misdemeanor warrants in its database, and at the time of the arrest, Salt Lake County had a “backlog of outstanding warrants”
so large that it faced the “potential for civil liability.”
- The State of California has 2.5 million outstanding arrest warrants (a number corresponding to about 9% of its adult population)
- Pennsylvania (with a population of about 12.8 million) contributes 1.4 million more; and New York City (population 8.4 million) adds another 1.2 million
- Cincinnati, Ohio had over 100,000 outstanding warrants with only 300,000 residents
- 16,000 of the 21,000 people residing in the town of Ferguson, Missouri have outstanding warrants.
The decision is a disappointing continuation of the country’s never ending descent into a police state. Vast sectors of the US population, particularly those demographics and communities that are targeted by the police, are now further exposed to legitimized violations of their rights. It seem appropriate that this case involves a narcotics investigation, as the victimless crime of drug possession has long been used as a tool to target and criminalize enemies of the state. Perhaps it’s time to create a coalition against consensual crimes to combat the rise of the police state.