Pubdate: Tue, 21 Jun 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company


The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and 
seizures by the government - or that's how it works in theory, anyway.

In practice, though, court decisions over several decades have 
created so many exceptions to this constitutional principle as to 
render it effectively meaningless in many real-world situations.

On Monday, the Supreme Court further weakened the Fourth Amendment by 
making it even easier for law enforcement to evade its requirement 
that stops be based on reasonable suspicion. The justices ruled 5 to 
3 that a police officer's illegal stop of a man on the street did not 
prevent evidence obtained from a search connected to that stop to be 
used against him.

The case, Utah v. Strieff, started when the police in Salt Lake City 
got an anonymous tip of drug activity at a house. An officer 
monitoring the house 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 
drugs in his pockets.

The State of Utah agreed that the initial stop was illegal, because 
it was not based on reasonable, individual suspicion that Mr. Strieff 
was doing anything wrong. Instead, the state argued that the 
discovery of the valid warrant - after the illegal stop - got around 
the Fourth amendment violation.

The Utah Supreme Court rightly rejected this argument, but that 
decision was overturned in a majority opinion written by Justice 
Clarence Thomas. The officer's lack of any specific suspicion of Mr. 
Strieff, Justice Thomas wrote, was a result of "good-faith mistakes." 
The illegal stop was, at worst, "an isolated instance of negligence."

In a powerful dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor took apart that 
specious reasoning. "Do not be soothed by the opinion's technical 
language," she wrote. "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."

Justice Sotomayor acknowledged the temptation to let the officer get 
away with his own wrongdoing, since "his instincts, although 
unconstitutional, were correct." But that misses a "basic principle" 
of the Fourth Amendment, she said: "Two wrongs don't make a right."

Responding to Justice Thomas's unsupported claim that the violation 
of Mr. Strieff's rights was an isolated case, Justice Sotomayor 
pointed out that the police in Salt Lake City and nationwide 
routinely run warrant checks on people they have illegally stopped. 
Combine that practice with the "staggering" number of outstanding 
warrants - nearly eight million around the country, almost all for 
minor offenses - and cops have an even greater incentive to stop 
anyone for any reason, knowing the odds are good that they will find 
a warrant and be able to make an arrest and conduct a search.

In a final and more personal statement, Justice Sotomayor drew a link 
between the court's extreme deference to law enforcement officials 
and the racial inequity that pervades America's criminal justice 
system. While Mr. Strieff is white, she said, "it is no secret that 
people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of 
scrutiny." The central, disturbing message of Monday's ruling, she 
added, is that whether you are white or black, "your body is subject 
to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights," and in 
that way, "unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and 
threaten all our lives."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom