Fourth Amendment and Utah v. Strieff

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Utah Supreme Court's decision to throw out evidence obtained during an illegal search on Monday, the internet has been abuzz with opinion pieces on how the Fourth Amendment no longer exists.

Here is one more such opinion:

What was Utah v. Strieff?

Way back in 2006 (you don't get to the SCOTUS quickly...), officers had been monitoring a house for suspected drug activity for a week. When Edward Strieff walked out of the house to go to the store, the officers approached him and asked for ID. They found out he had a minor traffic warrant, so they arrested him and searched him incident to arrest, finding drugs. Simple enough.

The problem is that the officers had no reasonable suspicion that Mr. Strieff was engaging in any illegal activity, so they had no right to stop him. That would mean that anything that occurred after the intial (illegal) stop should have been suppressed, including the drugs. The Utah Supreme Court agreed. SCOTUS did not.

In a 5-3 decision authored by Justice Thomas, the majority reasoned that while the initial stop was illegal, the presence of the warrant meant that the search was attenuated from the illegal stop, and thus the search was still legal. The officers' actions were negligent, but made in good faith; basically, no harm, no foul.

Justice Sotomayor then wrote a scathing dissent in which she stated that this is exactly the type of profiling that goes on regularly, and it is actually creating an incentive for officers to continue it. She says that this means officers can stop anybody they want for absolutely no reason and, provided they have an outstanding warrant, search them.

Why is this such a big deal?

Obviously, Justice Sotomayor correctly points out that this incentivizes profiling, and not just racial. Essentially, SCOTUS is telling police to go to a high crime area and arbitrarily stop whomever they want. If they have an unpaid speeding ticket, search them for drugs. If not, send them on their way. Think of a high school hall monitor stopping any kid they see to check for a hall pass. Columbus Police should just stop every person they see in the Hilltop on the off chance that they have a warrant.

Why isn't this a big deal?

This isn't exactly the doomsday scenario that people (many who are much smarter and more insightful that myself) are making it out to be. Why, you ask?

BECAUSE THIS WAS ESSENTIALLY THE LAW ALREADY. 

Well, not entirely, but it certainly was if you are in a car. The second you step foot in a vehicle, you are inviting the police to pull you over. If an officer wants to pull you over, he will find a reason. Make that turn a little too wide? Better pull you over. Now that you're on the side of the road, are you looking nervous? Better get a drug dog while the officer takes his time writing a ticket for that turn.

I routinely hear officers say that it takes 15-20 minutes to issue a citation. Why so long? Because that is enough time to run the IDs of you and your passengers to make sure you don't have any warrants. If you do, well then the whole car is subject to being searched because if you are arrested, the car can be impounded and searched subject to impound, so it might as well be searched on the scene; it's called inevitable discovery.

Well great, I better not leave my house, right?

I suppose that's one way to avoid trouble. But, assuming that you don't want to become a recluse, that is exactly why you need to have a good attorney. A good attorney is up to date on his Fourth Amendment law and knows how to make sure that the fruits of an illegal search get suppressed. Don't become the next Edward Strieff - if you are facing charges and think you were searched illegally, call the attorneys at Wolfe Van Wey & Associates, LLC, for a free consultation.


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