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Opinion

Editorial: The Supreme Court winks at an illegal police stop

Clarence Thomas
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court in Washington on Sept. 29, 2009.
(Charles Dharapak / Assoicated Press)

At a time of justified concern about arbitrary police stops, the Supreme Court on Monday made such harassment more likely rather than less. By a 5-3 vote, the court upheld the search of a drug defendant that grew out of a stop that the state conceded was unlawful.

The decision in a Utah case pokes yet another hole in an important principle:  that courts may not consider evidence that is the result of an illegal search or seizure – the so-called “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

In 2006  Edward Strieff was stopped by a police officer after he walked out of a house in South Salt Lake City suspected – on the basis of an anonymous tip – of being the scene of “narcotics activity.”  After Strieff identified himself, the officer ran his name through a data base and discovered an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. The officer then arrested Strieff on that charge and searched him, finding a bag containing methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. The state subsequently admitted that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Strieff, as required under Supreme Court interpretations of the 4th Amendment. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas concluded that it didn’t matter if the officer had no basis on which to stop Strieff; the evidence was admissible anyway, Thomas said, because the link between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of the drugs was “attenuated” by the officer’s discovery of an outstanding arrest warrant.  

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This wrongheaded decision continues the court’s practice of watering down the “exclusionary rule” that, by forbidding the use at trial of illegally seized evidence, serves to deter police misconduct.

And the decision could have far-reaching consequences. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a powerful dissent:  “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.”  Sotomayor also noted that, although Strieff is white, “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.” 

The Supreme Court should have used this case to remind police that violating the 4th Amendment has consequences and that such fishing expeditions are an affront to the Constitution.

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