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?