Did the Supreme Court just expand police searches?

The Supreme Court has ruled that evidence found in 'illegal' stops and searches can be used in court in some cases, a controversial decision that's raised concerns about redefining the Fourth Amendment. 

Colleen Long/AP/File
Detective Anthony Mannuzza (l.) and Police Officer Robert Martin (r.) simulate a street stop during a training session at the New York Police Department's training facility in Rodman's Neck, in the Queens borough of New York in June 2012. The NYPD retrained thousands of officers on how to do street stops amid a wave of criticism about the department’s controversial stop, question, and frisk policy.

Evidence obtained through illegal stops and searches can in some cases be used against the defendant in court, ruled the majority of the US Supreme Court on Monday. 

The ruling came in the case of Utah vs. Strieff. In December 2006, narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell was observing a house after an anonymous tip suggested the house was being used for "narcotic activity." He decided to question the next person he saw leave the house, who happened to be Edward Strieff.

Officer Fackrell detained Mr. Strieff while he radioed in to check for outstanding warrants; after learning Strieff had a warrant against him for a minor traffic offense, Fackrell searched Strieff and found a small amount of methamphetamine. 

The drug conviction was thrown out by the Utah Supreme Court, on the grounds that it resulted from an unconstitutional stop: Fackrell had no reason to suspect Strieff of illegal activity, so the search would only be legal if Strieff had admitted to a crime or consented to a search after the initial stop, the Utah court ruled. 

But the nation's highest court reinstated the conviction on Monday, as the five-justice majority determined that "while Officer Fackrell's decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful.

Writing for the conservative majority, which included the typically liberal Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Justice Clarence Thomas said the discovery of Strieff's warrant made the subsequent search legal. 

The Supreme Court's three other liberal justices dissented in two separate opinions, written by Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

As The Christian Science Monitor's Ben Rosen reports:

In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, she condemned Thomas's majority opinion and the police conduct it allows, which she wrote turns America into a "carceral state" because the citizens of this democracy will be subject to searches at any time. As the nation contends with questions the Black Lives Matter movement has surfaced, Sotomayor's dissent shows the subject of police misconduct, especially in profiling citizens, has reached at least some of the high court.

The court's ruling Monday has elicited concern from others who agree with Justice Sotomayor, and say that the decision encourages officers to stop and search random citizens, particularly ethnic minorities in neighborhoods where outstanding warrants may be common. 

"You're basically encouraging police to stop whomever they want for the purpose of: 'I want to see if you have any open warrants. And once I find that you have an open warrant for not paying a parking ticket, now I can look into your pockets,'" said University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert to The Baltimore Sun. 

There are more than 7.8 million outstanding arrest warrants in the United States, according to state and federal databases, Sotomayor noted. The majority of these warrants are for minor offenses, such as unpaid traffic tickets. 

"The reason that's such a scary proposition is because most of the people in this country who have open warrants are poor," said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a former prosecutor who now works at the New York University law school's Brennan Center for Justice, to NPR. Many, she says, could not afford a lawyer to get rid of the warrant. 

Ms. Eisen fears that the Supreme Court's ruling will provide officers with incentive to increase random searches in poor neighborhoods. But Tod Burke, a former Maryland police officer and criminal justice professor at Redford University, told the Sun he doesn't think the ruling will encourage police "fishing expeditions."

"The vast majority of them want to follow the rules and procedures," he said.

Despite concerns that the Supreme Court ruling may have set a precedent that encourages Fourth Amendment violations (the amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures"), the court had no reason to believe that Utah vs. Strieff was "part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct," wrote Thomas on Monday. "To the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the stop was an isolated instance of negligence that occurred in connection with a bona fide investigation of a suspected drug house." 

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