Pubdate: Thu, 23 Jun 2016
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2016 The Baltimore Sun Company


The Supreme Court just gave police sweeping new powers to rummage 
through people's pockets

The Supreme Court threw out more than a half century of precedent 
this week when it ruled that evidence gathered after an illegal stop 
can be used in criminal prosecutions if the person searched has an 
outstanding warrant. In a 5-3 ruling, the justices substantially 
weakened the longstanding exclusionary rule that generally makes such 
evidence inadmissible in court. The court's action threatens Fourth 
Amendment protections against illegal searches and represents a 
dangerous departure from settled law that prevented police from 
randomly stopping and questioning people on the streets.

The case heard by the justices involved a Utah man who was stopped by 
police after leaving a house in South Salt Lake where officers 
suspected narcotics were being sold. The state later conceded the 
stop was unlawful because simply being near a suspected drug market 
doesn't provide reasonable probable cause for police to believe a 
crime has been committed.

But when the officer ran a check on the man he discovered the suspect 
had previously been issued a warrant for a minor traffic violation. 
He then arrested the man, searched him and found methamphetamines and 
drug paraphernalia. The question for the justices was whether the 
drugs should have been admitted into evidence despite the fact that 
they were discovered as the result of an unlawful search.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, argued that 
because the suspect had an outstanding arrest warrant for the traffic 
violation, the court could ignore the illegality of the stop. "In 
this case, the warrant was valid, it predated [the police officer's] 
investigation, and it was entirely unconnected with the stop," 
Justice Thomas wrote, adding that such searches do not violate the 
Fourth Amendment when an arrest warrant is valid, even if it is 
completely unrelated to the conduct that prompted the stop. The 
officer "was at most negligent," he ruled, because there was no 
evidence that the stop "reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct."

In an unusually emphatic dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor denounced 
the decision as a vast expansion of police power, regardless of 
whether officers have probable cause to believe a crime has been 
committed, and that it potentially opens the door to more widespread 
use of racial profiling by police to target minorities and the poor.

"It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of 
this type of scrutiny," she wrote. "This case tells everyone, white 
and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal 
status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion 
while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you 
are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, 
just waiting to be cataloged."

The legal issues surrounding police stops became an issue last month 
in the trial of Edward Nero, one of six Baltimore officers charged in 
the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. Prosecutors argued that Mr. 
Nero was culpable in Gray's death because officers had no probable 
cause to arrest him or to put him in the back of the police van where 
he suffered a fatal spinal injury. Mr. Nero was acquitted of all 
charges at trial, though Judge Barry Williams did not squarely 
address the question of whether the arrest was legal in his verdict.

The Utah case erodes the Fourth Amendment's protection against 
unreasonable searches and seizures because it will make it easier for 
officers to stop suspects simply to see whether they have open 
warrants that would justify a search. In Baltimore, some 40,000 
people have outstanding warrants for minor offenses. How many people 
will police now stop, playing the odds that they can later turn up a 
warrant to justify a search?
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom