Supreme Court without Scalia divided over giving police more leeway to stop people

The Supreme Court resumed hearing arguments Monday for the first time since Justice Antonin Scalia's unexpected death and immediately plunged into a heated dispute over police powers that underscored how the remaining eight justices might find themselves increasingly deadlocked this term.

As they considered whether to give police more leeway to stop and question people in high-crime neighborhoods, the justices appeared split along familiar ideological lines, raising the possibility of what some predict could be several 4-4 votes without Scalia.

Before arguments began, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. opened the session with a tribute to Scalia, whose seat was draped with black cloth. The conservative justice was found dead at a Texas resort Feb. 13.

"We remember his incisive intellect, his agile wit and his captivating prose," Roberts said. "But we cannot forget his irrepressible spirit. He was our man for all seasons, and we shall miss him beyond measure."

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Once arguments got underway, the justices -- now evenly split between Republican and Democratic appointees -- voiced starkly different views on the case.

At issue is whether to relax the so-called "exclusionary rule" and permit the use of evidence that was found after an officer had illegally stopped a pedestrian or motorist.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the nation was in danger of "becoming a police state" if officers can stop every person on the corner, ask for identification, check for warrants and then search them if one is found.

But the chief justice said he saw no problem with an officer asking for identification from a man seen leaving a suspected drug house and checking to see if he had an outstanding arrest warrant.

While the case heard Monday centered around events in Salt Lake City, much of the argument focused on Ferguson, Mo., which exploded into unrest in 2014 after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man.

Subsequent investigations into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department found that more than two-thirds of the city's residents had outstanding warrants, mostly for unpaid parking tickets and minor fines. 

Justice Elena Kagan said she was "surprised beyond measure at how many people have outstanding warrants" in many of the nation's cities. It would "dramatically change the incentives" for police if they were told they could stop people for questioning and check for a warrant and then search and arrest anyone who had a warrant on file.

The case heard Monday began when a police officer in south Salt Lake City was watching a house where illegal drug sales were suspected, based on an anonymous tip. After some time, he saw Edward Strieff exit the house and walk toward a convenience store. The officer stopped him in a parking lot.

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The officer asked for Strieff's identification, and after making a call, learned that Strieff had an outstanding warrant for a minor traffic fine. The officer then searched Strieff, found methamphetamine in his pocket and arrested him.

A Utah judge refused to suppress the evidence because the officer's search was triggered by the news of the outstanding warrant. But the Utah Supreme Court threw out the case against Strieff on the grounds the officer had no legal basis for stopping him in the first instance.

The liberal justices said they would be troubled by a ruling that encouraged the police to stop people routinely, hoping they might have an outstanding warrant that would justify searching them or their cars.

The conservative justices said only a tiny percentage of people in most communities have outstanding warrants, so police would not be inclined to make stops for that reason in most of the nation.

The justices will meet behind closed doors to vote on the case of Utah vs. Strieff. If a majority can agree on an outcome, they will begin writing an opinion. If not, the Utah Supreme Court ruling could be affirmed on an equally divided vote.

On Twitter: @DavidGSavage

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