By THE EDITORIAL BOARDJUNE 20, 2016
The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government — or that’s how it works in theory, anyway.
In practice, though, court decisions over several decades have created so many exceptions to this constitutional principle as to render it effectively meaningless in many real-world situations.
On Monday, the Supreme Court further weakened the Fourth Amendment by making it even easier for law enforcement to evade its requirement that stops be based on reasonable suspicion. The justices ruled 5 to 3 that a police officer’s illegal stop of a man on the street did not prevent evidence obtained from a search connected to that stop to be used against him.
The case, Utah v. Strieff, started when the police in Salt Lake City got an anonymous tip of drug activity at a house. An officer monitoring the house became suspicious at the number of people he saw entering and leaving. When one of those people, Edward Strieff, left to walk to a nearby convenience store, the officer stopped him and asked for his identification. A routine check revealed that Mr. Strieff had an outstanding “small traffic warrant.” The officer arrested him based on that earlier warrant, searched him and found drugs in his pockets.
The State of Utah agreed that the initial stop was illegal, because it was not based on reasonable, individual suspicion that Mr. Strieff was doing anything wrong. Instead, the state argued that the discovery of the valid warrant — after the illegal stop — got around the Fourth amendment violation.
The Utah Supreme Court rightly rejected this argument, but that decision was overturned in a majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. The officer’s lack of any specific suspicion of Mr. Strieff, Justice Thomas wrote, was a result of “good-faith mistakes.” The illegal stop was, at worst, “an isolated instance of negligence.”
In a powerful dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor took apart that specious reasoning. “Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language,” she wrote. “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.”
Justice Sotomayor acknowledged the temptation to let the officer get away with his own wrongdoing, since “his instincts, although unconstitutional, were correct.” But that misses a “basic principle” of the Fourth Amendment, she said: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Responding to Justice Thomas’s unsupported claim that the violation of Mr. Strieff’s rights was an isolated case, Justice Sotomayor pointed out that the police in Salt Lake City and nationwide routinely run warrant checks on people they have illegally stopped. Combine that practice with the “staggering” number of outstanding warrants — nearly eight million around the country, almost all for minor offenses — and cops have an even greater incentive to stop anyone for any reason, knowing the odds are good that they will find a warrant and be able to make an arrest and conduct a search.
In a final and more personal statement, Justice Sotomayor drew a link between the court’s extreme deference to law enforcement officials and the racial inequity that pervades America’s criminal justice system. While Mr. Strieff is white, she said, “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.” The central, disturbing message of Monday’s ruling, she added, is that whether you are white or black, “your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights,” and in that way, “unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives.”
Susan Soares has written for Cannabis Now Magazine, Alternet, and Sensi Magazine.