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June 30, 2016Download PDF

Supreme Court Ruling Has Potential To Undermine The Fourth Amendment

On June 20, 2016, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 3 to reverse a decision of the Utah Supreme Court that threw out drug-possession evidence seized from Edward Strieff in 2006 based upon an unlawful stop by an Officer. The underlying case, Utah v. Strieff, arose from police surveillance of a house in Salt Lake City, Utah based on an anonymous tip of “narcotics activity.” Upon receiving this tip, Officer Fackrell promptly conducted surveillance of the home and during his surveillance he witnessed Strieff emerge from the home.

Officer Fackrell stopped Strieff at a nearby parking lot to question him, and asked for his ID. The officer ran a background check and discovered that Strieff had a warrant for a minor traffic violation. At that point, Officer Fackrell placed Strieff under arrest. During a subsequent search of Strieff, the officer found a baggie containing methamphetamines and drug paraphernalia.

Strieff claimed that his Fourth Amendment rights of unreasonable search and seizure were violated. The Utah Supreme Court agreed and said the drugs that were found were not admissible in court because they were retrieved as a result of the unlawful stop by Officer Fackrell.

Therefore, the question that the Justices were left with was whether the drug evidence had to be suppressed given Officer Fackrell’s unlawful stop or whether they could be used as evidence given the arrest warrant.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court, conceded that Fackrell’s initial stop lacked reasonable suspicion. “But the Court has also held that, even when there is a Fourth Amendment violation, this exclusionary rule does not apply when the costs of exclusion outweigh its deterrent benefits. In some cases, for example, the link between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence is too attenuated to justify suppression.” Justice Thomas called Fackrell’s initial stop “negligent,” adding that “there is no evidence that Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct.” Justice Thomas ultimately concluded these errors were made in “good faith” and did not justify the exclusion of evidence.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined the majority opinion.

In a blistering dissent that cited W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the Court had vastly expanded police power.

“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,” she wrote. “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,” she continued, “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.”

Justice Sotomayor noted that outstanding warrants are now a common feature in American life. Federal and state databases show more than 7.8 million outstanding warrants, she wrote, “the vast majority of which appear to be for minor offenses.” There are, she added, 180,000 misdemeanor warrants in Utah. And according to the Justice Department, about 16,000 of the 21,000 residents of Ferguson, Mo., are subject to arrest warrants.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined most of Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, along with all of a separate dissent from Justice Elena Kagan. But Justice Sotomayor reserved her most personal reflection for a part of her dissent in which she wrote only for herself, setting out in detail the dangers and indignities that often accompany police stops.

“For generations,” she wrote, “black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ — instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger — all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”

“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated,’” she wrote. “They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter, too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.”

The major impact of this ruling seems to be the weakening of the exclusionary rule, which protects Americans’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, stated “[w]e’re deeply disappointed in the court’s ruling…it does increase the chance that if you’re stopped unconstitutionally that evidence gathered after that could potentially come against you, which we believe undermines Fourth Amendment protections.”

One final interesting and unusual takeaway from this ruling: it was the first time since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia that one of the Court’s consistent liberals — Justice Stephen G. Breyer — joined the traditionally right-leaning Justices to create a conservative majority.