SCOTUS sets chilling precedent for stop and frisk in 5-3 vote

© Jim Young
The US Supreme Court has supported the ruling that evidence collected during an illegal police stop can be used in court. The decision is feared to have a “disproportionate” effect on people of color.

In a 5-3 decision, Supreme Court judges ruled on Monday that if police detain anyone without cause and then find an outstanding warrant, the stop and search are legal. If something incriminating is found on that person, the search is admissible in court.

Utah vs Strieff originated from a case when detective Doug Fackrell detained Edward Strieff as he was leaving a house in South Salt Lake City which was tipped to be the site of illegal drug trade.

After running his name, Fackrell learned Strieff had an outstanding traffic warrant. He searched Strieff and found a pipe and small volume of methamphetamine on him. He was arrested for drug possession.

Strieff argued the evidence obtained was inadmissible as it was gathered during an unlawful stop. The court and court of appeals denied this. The Utah Supreme Court ordered the evidence be suppressed, which led to Utah appealing the decision.

Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and John Roberts ruled in favor of Utah.

According to the ruling, although Fackrell was wrong to stop and question Strieff, his existing traffic warrant made it acceptable to search and arrest Strieff.

Explaining his decision, Justice Thomas said: “Once Officer Fackrell discovered the warrant, he had an obligation to arrest Strieff. Once Officer Fackrell was authorized to arrest Strieff, it was undisputedly lawful to search Strieff as an incident of his arrest to protect Officer Fackrell’s safety.”

The Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” has an “exclusionary rule” which deems evidence obtained by unconstitutional police conduct to be excluded from evidence. However, the SCOTUS ruled that “because the officer’s discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized incident to arrest,” the evidence seized was admissible.

Arguing against the decision, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan said the ruling would strip the 7.8 million Americans that are currently in databases for outstanding warrants of their rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

Sotomayor delivered an impassioned opposition to the decision, pointing to the targeting of people of colour. “It is no secret that people of colour are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. 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," she said.

As the US struggles with police brutality against young black Americans, the decision has been criticized as a further step in isolating young black men and violating their rights.

The most striking aspect of the decision, Sotomayor said, was the “insistence that the event here was “isolated,” with “‘no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct.’”

“Nothing about this case is isolated” she said, before citing how common outstanding warrants are. Sotomayor pointed to Utah’s backlog of 180,000 outstanding warrants which was so large, “it faced the potential for civil liability.”

She then cited the Department of Justice's Ferguson report, which found 16,000 out of the 21,000 people living there have outstanding warrants.

Ferguson, Missouri, is where police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2014, drawing attention to the treatment of young black men in America.