Pubdate: Tue, 23 Feb 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company


Should incriminating evidence be used against a defendant if it was 
discovered in the course of an illegal police stop?

That was the question before the Supreme Court on Monday, the first 
day of oral arguments since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The 
court has been weakening the Fourth Amendment's defense against 
illegal searches for years. Monday's case gives the justices an 
opportunity to restore some of its power.

The case, Utah v. Strieff, started in 2006, when the Salt Lake City 
police got an anonymous tip reporting drug activity at a house. An 
officer monitored the house for several days and became suspicious at 
the number of people he saw entering and leaving. When one of those 
people, Edward Strieff, left to walk to a nearby convenience store, 
the officer stopped him and asked for his identification.

A routine check revealed that Mr. Strieff had an outstanding "small 
traffic warrant." The officer arrested him based on that earlier 
warrant, searched him and found a bag of methamphetamine and drug 
paraphernalia in his pockets.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled that the drug evidence could not be used 
against Mr. Strieff because the initial police stop was illegal. That 
is, it was not supported by reasonable, individual suspicion against 
Mr. Strieff - regardless of the pre-existing warrant.

Evidence the police discover as a result of violating the Fourth 
Amendment is considered "fruit of the poisonous tree" and is 
suppressed under what is known as the exclusionary rule. This is a 
sensible way to deter the police from breaking the law to get 
evidence they want. But the court has created several exceptions to 
this rule, such as in cases where the evidence discovered was a 
result of a search that was based on a clerical error.

At Monday's argument, lawyers for Utah argued that the officer's stop 
of Mr. Strieff was a reasonable, good-faith mistake and that 
suppressing the evidence would harm society far more than it would 
deter other officers from making similar mistakes.

But as Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out during oral argument, this 
approach would give far too much latitude to law enforcement: "What 
stops us from becoming a police state and just having the police 
stand on the corner down here and stop every person, ask them for 
identification, put it through, and if a warrant comes up, searching them?"

Justice Elena Kagan added that the threat of this behavior is 
especially serious in lower-income communities where a majority of 
residents have outstanding warrants for minor infractions. "If you're 
policing a community where there is some significant percentage of 
people who have arrest warrants out on them, it really does increase 
your incentive to make that stop," she said.

The exclusionary rule may be frustrating for law enforcement, but 
that is exactly why it is an important constitutional principle that 
must be defended.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom