© Josh Sager – June 2016
This week the Supreme Court ruled on a case (Utah v Strieff) that severely erodes the 4th Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure—this was a 5-3 decision, with Justice Breyer joining the conservative block to create a majority, even with the opening on the court. With this ruling in effect, evidence that is collected illegally by police officers who use petty warrants to circumvent citizens’ 4th Amendment rights will be made admissible.
Utah v Strieff started as a drug prosecution of a man named Edward Strieff. Police had received an anonymous tip that he was a drug dealer and were surveilling him. During this surveillance, a police officer decided to illegally stop and search him, finding meth and drug works, and then ran him for warrants, which came back with a minor traffic violation. While the initial trial court refused to suppress the evidence, the Utah Supreme Court reversed this on appeal due to the illegality of the search (which everybody stipulates to). The SCOTUS reversed the Utah Supreme Court decision with an opinion written by Justice Thomas.
Justice Sotomayor perfectly summarized the ramifications of this decision in her dissent:
“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.”
The Utah v Strieff decision legitimizes illegally obtained evidence, even where its collection has been deemed to violate the suspect’s constitutional rights. This is a terrible blow to our 4th Amendment protections and opens the door to even more abuse by police officers looking to circumvent the law to justify an arrest.
Unfortunately, this case is only the most recent attack on the 4th Amendment by the current Supreme Court. In 2014, they ruled in Heien v North Carolina that a police officer’s ignorance of the law allows the admission of illegally obtained evidence (e.g. if a police officer arrests you for something that isn’t actually a crime and finds drugs on you during a search, the drugs are admissible if the officer claims that he didn’t know he was illegally arresting you). Similarly, in 2011, they decided that police can break down your door and search your home if they claim to have smelled marijuana and heard “scurrying” that could be efforts to hide evidence.
These attacks on the 4th Amendment do not affect everybody in our society equally. Police are FAR more likely to target poor or minority Americans during drug investigations than rich or white Americans. Additionally, wealthy people are able to hire exceptional lawyers to get them off on a technicality (case in point: the Affluenza Teen) or successfully suppress questionable evidence. Conversely, poor people who rely on overworked legal aid attorneys are unable to get such advantages and often are forced to take draconian plea deals out of fear of decades in jail.
We have a 4th Amendment for a very important reason. It protects every American from immoral authority figures who would illegally seize our property or our persons. It established due process of law and acts as the base for the rules of evidence in our justice system. If the 4th Amendment is shaken, police gain the power to abuse their position by illegally searching us and taking our property, without strong judicial oversight or redress, and we are left at the mercy of the morality of individual officers. While a lot of police officers are just decent people looking to protect and serve, the history of police abuse in the USA makes this an extremely worrying situation.