Utah v. Strieff: SCOTUS Narrows Fourth Amendment Protections
A verdict in Utah v. Strieff was handed down by the Supreme Court yesterday, weighing in on how the Fourth Amendment applies to illegal searches. In a 5 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed a ruling from the Utah Supreme Court, concluding that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment can be used in court.
The case began when a narcotics detective in Salt Lake City, Utah stopped Edward Strieff after he exited a house that was being monitored for potential drug activity. The detective had seen multiple people making brief stops at the house, calling Strieff’s activities into suspicion. When the detective stopped Strieff, he asked him what he was doing and to provide some identification. He relayed Strieff’s information to a dispatch officer who found that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Strieff was arrested for this violation and promptly searched upon arrest.
So, what’s the Fourth Amendment question? The search revealed that Strieff had methamphetamine and a pipe on him, which were later used as evidence against him. Strieff challenged the case to the District Court, arguing that the evidence should not be used because it was obtained from an illegal search. The District Court and the Court of Appeals both ruled against Strieff, but when he appealed once again to the Utah Supreme Court, the ruling turned in his favor. Finally, the Utah Attorney General appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In his majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argues that the evidence used to convict Strieff was legally gathered. Thomas writes that, although the original stop may not have been constitutional, the fact that the officer later obtained an arrest warrant meant that the evidence was collected legally. As Thomas puts it,
The discovery of that warrant broke the causal chain between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of evidence by compelling Officer Fackrell to arrest Strieff.
Three justices–Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Kagan–dissented from the majority opinion. In her dissent, Justice Sonya Sotomayor destroyed the opposing argument. She eloquently described exactly why police powers should not be so broad and how the court’s decision, and the unlawful stops that will likely follow, will have disastrous effects on the public. The end of her dissent is a chilling reminder of how far we have to go as a country when it comes to liberty and equality:
By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” 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.
Several groups were also deeply disappointed with the case’s outcome and the effects it may have in the future. The ACLU tweeted its disapproval:
We are deeply disappointed. #SCOTUS got it wrong on the 4th Amendment in Streiff, with terrible repercussions, esp. for people of color.
— ACLU National (@ACLU) June 20, 2016
Regardless of the circumstances of this case, the decision gives unprecedented power to police under the Fourth Amendment. People may now be stopped on the streets without having committed a crime. Even worse, any incriminating evidence that results from an unlawful stop may be legally used against you in court. This decision has the power to lead to more and more unconstitutional searches by police.
In the words of Justice Sotomayor, people who are targeted by the police in the way that this decision will now expand, are a warning to us all. They point to injustice in our justice system and show us where we need to improve in order to ensure the liberty for all that is promised in our Constitution. She concluded her dissent saying,
“Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.”