A few days ago the Supreme Court of The United States handed down an opinion that has caused a great deal of debate in the legal community around the issue of evidence exclusion in the face of admitted police misconduct. Utah v. Strieff, 579 U.S. __ (2016). In this case, the court determined that it was ok for evidence to be used which was gathered after an illegal stop of a defendant. In this case the government agreed that the initial stop of the defendant was inappropriate, and in fact illegal. Once the officer took identification from the defendant, without having reasonable suspicion that he was involved in a crime, that officer ran his information through the police database.
This inquiry resulted in the discovery of a minor warrant for the defendant’s arrest. The defendant was arrested and searched, resulting in the discovery of drugs on his person. The Supreme Court of the United States has just ruled that the evidence gathered in that search could be used against him, despite the fact that it was found after illegally stopping the defendant and taking his identification. The Court ruled that the discovery of the arrest warrant, even for this minor offense, was a sufficient intervening cause which allowed the evidence to be used. While there is some prior caselaw which suggested this could be the court’s decision, it is still deeply disturbing. The reason why is eloquently highlighted in the dissent penned by Justice Sotomayor. The dissenting opinion begins,
“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.”
While this may seem a dramatic statement to some, this is only because it is now the truth – the law of the land. No Court expects their Opinion to be misused, as that is not the aim of the Courts. The courts’ jobs are to interpret the laws to the best of their abilities. While not the intention, this opinion will no doubt be used as a shield by law enforcement agencies in order to explain away and excuse otherwise unlawful behavior which happened to result in otherwise actionable evidence. This is even more concerning given the high rate of warrants, particularly in disadvantaged communities where even paying fines for minor offense is a burden to families. In a situation where before the individual could be notified of the warrant and instructed to make payment or go to the court to address the matter, now officers may be inclined to make arrests in order to complete otherwise impermissible searches. While it is likely that the majority of officers will not use this opinion in this way, it is always important to remember that the laws are meant to protect the people from the worst of behavior – not the best. In this case, it seems as though they got it wrong.