Washington D.C. — In another devastating blow to the 4th Amendment, on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that evidence of an alleged crime can be used against a defendant even if police did something inappropriate or even illegal to obtain it.
In a split 5-3 decision, the justices voted to reinstate the drug-related convictions of Joseph Edward Strieff. In the case of Strieff, he was illegally detained during a “concededly unconstitutional detention,” which eventually led to the discovery of drugs inside his vehicle.
In Strieff’s case, a trial court judge later found that the officer did not have enough evidence to initially stop and question him. But the judge ruled that Strieff’s subsequent arrest on an outstanding traffic warrant justified the search — implying that the use of criminal behavior to catch criminal behavior is just.
The Utah Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that the drug evidence was admissible at trial, but, in a moment of logic, the Utah Supreme Court last year reversed that decision.
The Utah Supreme Court noted in its January 2015 decision that the case presented “a gap of substantial significance” in terms of prior rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court on Fourth Amendment issues, and that other courts that have addressed the issue have come to “substantially different conclusions” regarding search and seizure law.
The Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule allows criminal defendants to suppress “fruit of the poisonous tree” — that is, evidence obtained as a result of a search or seizure that violates the Fourth Amendment. The reason this rule exists is due to the obvious conflict of interests in cops breaking the law to enforce the law.
However, thanks to Monday’s ruling by the Supreme Court, that is exactly what will happen now. Police have essentially been given a free pass to violate the rights of individuals — just so long as they find evidence of a ‘crime.’
On Monday, the logic applied by the Utah Supreme Court in 2015, was thrown to the wayside in a handout to the police state.
Given the reality of the militarized police state rising up from the horrors of the war on drugs, the fact that cops can now legally act illegally to bust people for possessing arbitrary substances is chilling.
As if breaking the law wasn’t enough, prior to this ruling, police were no longer required to even give the appearance of an understanding of the laws they’re tasked with enforcing, thanks to a recent court decision surpassing even the veritable green light previously granted in Heien v. North Carolina.
In the Heien case, the Supreme Court ruled a “police officer’s reasonable mistake of law gives rise to reasonable suspicion that justifies a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.” A motorist’s broken tail light caused an officer to make a traffic stop — during which evidence of a separate violation of the law was discovered in the vehicle.
But in North Carolina, a broken tail light wasn’t illegal, thus not sufficient cause to justify the stop — nor the arrests stemming from it, lawyers argued, because that would be a violation of unreasonable searches and seizures.
However, the Supreme Court ruled the officer’s ignorance of the law essentially didn’t matter — effectively allowing police around the country the ability to make stops if they ‘reasonably’ believe the cause for the stop is legal. Plainly, police can stop and search you despite ignorance of the law.
Now, in U.S. v Shelton Barnes et. al. — a case that seemed to slip by largely unnoticed — even that flimsy justification has been deemed too constricting of police power, and police ignorance can actually be used against you in a trial.
On Monday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in dissent that the decision in Utah vs. Edward Joseph Strieff, is a blow to constitutional rights.
“The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights,” Sotomayor wrote.
Sotomayor’s dissent was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan.
Now, police need not understand the law, or even abide by the law — to enforce the law. In what world is this considered acceptable?