U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court rules for cop who seized drugs after unlawful stop; Sotomayor decries 'carceral state'

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 5-3 that there is no need to toss evidence recovered after a police officer makes an unconstitutional investigatory stop and discovers the subject is subject to a valid arrest warrant.

The court ruled (PDF) in a case applying the attenuation doctrine, which holds there is no need to exclude evidence when its discovery is too attenuated from the unconstitutional conduct. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion.

A dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor warns that the majority decision “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.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Sotomayor’s dissent, and also joined a separate dissent by Justice Elena Kagan.

The officer who arrested defendant Edward Strieff had been staking out a home, off and on, after receiving a tip of possible narcotics activity there. The officer stopped Strieff after he left the home and walked to a nearby convenience store. The officer asked for identification and learned that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. When the officer searched Strieff, he discovered methamphetamine. The state conceded that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion for the initial stop.

Thomas said the officer made a good-faith mistake when he stopped Strieff without knowing if he was a short-term visitor to the suspected drug house, which would have meant he could have been buying drugs. The officer also made a good-faith mistake, Thomas said, when he demanded rather than asked that Strieff speak to him.

Also, Thomas said, there was no evidence that the unlawful stop was part of any “systemic or recurrent police conduct. To the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the stop was an isolated instance of negligence that occurred in connection with a bona fide investigation of a suspected drug house.”

Strieff had argued that failing to exclude the evidence would encourage police to engage in dragnet searches in jurisdictions where there is a prevalence of outstanding arrest warrants. “We think that this outcome is unlikely,” Thomas said. “Such wanton conduct would expose police to civil liability.” If police were carrying on dragnet searches, Thomas added, the decision on whether to exclude the evidence could be different.

Sotomayor, however, stressed in her dissent that outstanding warrants are “surprisingly common.” In Ferguson, Missouri, for example, there are outstanding arrest warrants for 16,000 of the town’s 21,000 residents.

The majority, she said, “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.”

It is wrong, Sotomayor said, to “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.”

Kagan’s dissent said the majority had misapplied the factors to determine whether the evidence should be suppressed. She took the majority to task for attributing the officer’s Fourth Amendment violation to innocent mistakes. “Far from a Barney Fife-type mishap,” Kagan wrote, the officer’s stop of Strieff “was a calculated decision, taken with so little justification that the state has never tried to defend its legality.”

The discovery of an arrest warrant, Kagan said, “was an eminently foreseeable consequence of stopping Strieff.”

The case is Utah v. Strieff.

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