SCOTUS: If Police Stop You Illegally, It Could Still Be Legal

On Monday morning, the Supreme Court handed down their 5-3 decision in Utah v. Strieff, a case dealing with the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule. Justice Breyer joined the conservative judges in holding that the exclusionary rule does not apply when an officer makes an illegal stop, runs a warrant check on you, learns that you have an outstanding warrant for anything from a felony to a traffic ticket, and then searches you incident to the arrest on the outstanding warrant.

What Is The Exclusionary Rule?

In 1914, the Supreme Court created the exclusionary rule in the case of Weeks v. United States, which was made applicable to the states via Mapp v. Ohio. For years, evidence that was seized without a warrant or in violation of the constitution was still admissible against defendants in court. What the exclusionary rule did was enable courts to exclude or throw out incriminating evidence if the defendant proves that the evidence was procured without a warrant or other constitutional means. Defendants often challenge evidence by filing a motion to suppress the evidence with the court.

How Does the Strieff Decision Affect The Exclusionary Rule?

Well, it is a huge win for police. As Justice Kagan pointed out in her dissent, it essentially serves as an open invitation for police officers to make illegal stops and have their illegal actions be wiped away by the simple fact that the person stopped has a warrant for unknowingly missing a court date for a traffic ticket. In other words, police officers can stop anyone, ask for ID, and check for outstanding warrants. If there is no warrant, the person walks away and is probably not going to sue because it would not be worth the hassle. If there is a warrant, that person can now be arrested and searched. ANYTHING will now be used as reasonable suspicion to justify a stop, and gives courts the option to presume the officers were acting in good faith, without purpose and flagrancy.

Must Read Alert!

If you have the opportunity, Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in Part IV is definitely worth the read:

After her blistering dissent in Bamn, Justice Sotomayor again serves as the voice of the frustrated and angry social justice movements on the Supreme Court. She cites to Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates in making the case for people who are routinely targeted by police.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from Justice Sotomayor’s dissent (she is quickly becoming one of my personal heroes):

Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name. This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens. Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.

For generations, 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. 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. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.