The Supreme Court Just Weakened The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment, which prohibits illegal searches and seizures

Has long been one of our Constitution’s most effective checks against everyday abuses of power by the government, in particular law enforcement. By applying the exclusionary rule and prohibiting evidence obtained as a result of an illegal search from being used, our courts have regularly upheld the Fourth Amendment and disincentivized illegal searches and seizures. But on June 20th, the Supreme Court ruled that certain evidence obtained by an officer through an illegal search can, in fact, be used in court.

The case, Utah v. Strieff, began when a narcotics detective, Fackrell, followed up an on anonymous tip about suspected drug dealing at a house in Salt Lake City. He did surveillance on the house and noticed a lot of coming and going that he determined was consistent with drug dealing and then stopped Strieff who had recently come out of the house. Fackrell asked Strieff for ID and then passed his info along to a dispatcher who told Fackrell that Strieff had an outstanding warrant for a traffic misdemeanor. Fackrell then searched Strieff and found drugs and arrested him. The Fourth Amendment issue here starts when Fackrell stopped Strieff without a warrant or probable cause. Previous applications of the exclusionary rule would mean that all the evidence obtained after that illegal stop, which is to say all of the evidence against Strieff, would be inadmissible because it was all tainted by the illegality of the original stop. When Strieff’s lawyer tried to have the evidence suppressed on those grounds, the trial court denied the motion and the Utah Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision. But the Utah Supreme Court reversed the decision and deemed that the evidence was inadmissible. The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing the case in February of this year and last week they voted 5 to 3 to reverse the Utah Supreme Court’s decision and allow the evidence.

There are already some well established exceptions to the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule, but this case is notable because of the type and scope of exception that the Supreme Court has ruled acceptable. This case is also unusual because of the justification that Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the decision, gave for admitting the evidence: the traffic warrant that was discovered after the stop. What this case is saying is that if a police officer stops someone and there is no legal justification for the stop and the officer conducts an illegal search they can still use the evidence obtained in that search if during the search they discover that the person happens to have a warrant. And this exception still applies even if the warrant is for a minor and/or unrelated violation.

By creating a new type of exception to the exclusionary rule this case is essentially empowering police to conduct more illegal stops and more illegal searches. It opens the door to potential increases in abuse of power by police, upending the intent of the Fourth Amendment. Time will tell what the long term fallout from this decision is and whether it will exacerbate an already significant problem the U.S. is experiencing with how police and communities are interacting. In the short term, in fact as soon as the Court’s decision was made, the Fourth Amendment, the exclusionary rule, and all of our right to be secure against illegal searches and seizures got a little weaker. As Justice Sonya Sotomayor said in her dissent, “If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant. Because the Fourth Amendment should prohibit, not permit, such misconduct, I dissent.”

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