The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures. This means the police can’t stop you, arrest you, or search you or your house without some evidence that you’ve done something wrong.
One way Courts have protected this is to exclude any evidence police seize illegally in violation of the Fourth Amendment. If the police can’t use the evidence, they’re less likely to violate the Fourth Amendment again, meaning we’re better protected from being harassed unnecessarily by the police.
But the Supreme Court watered these protections down again in its decision of Utah v. Strieff that came out last week.
In Strieff, the defendant Strieff was stopped illegally, without enough evidence to show he was doing something wrong. During the stop, the police found out that Strieff had a pending warrant for unpaid traffic tickets and arrested him, then found some drugs on him.
Normally, the drugs would be excluded because it’s “fruit of the poisonous tree” – meaning that the initial stop was illegal, so any evidence flowing from that stop is also illegal. But that’s not how the Supreme Court decided the case – it decided that the drug evidence was legal because it was too “attenuated” from the illegal stop.
This means that even if the initial stop was illegal, the evidence can still come in because the police later found the warrant, so the search was removed from the initial illegal stop.
As Justice Sotomayor wrote so forcefully, this means that police are free to stop you at any time to figure out whether you have an arrest warrant. If you do, this would justify their stop, no matter how illegal. As the justice put it:
“Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: 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. 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.”
Justice Sotomayor is right. Many people have arrest warrants for minor offenses such as missing court for a traffic case or other such minor offenses. The Court in this case has basically ruled that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply to these people – if you have a warrant, the police can stop you even if you have done nothing wrong, then search you without repercussions.
The Fourth Amendment doesn’t only protect people who are doing illegal things – it protects everyday, law-abiding people from being stopped and harassed without evidence that they’re doing something wrong. The Supreme Court watered down this protection in Strieff, and it hurts all of us.