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Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Post-Scalia Court Tackles Arrest-Evidence Case

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court resumed its business Monday in the absence of Justice Antonin Scalia. His tall, black leather chair - to the right of Chief Justice John G. Roberts - sat noticeably empty, draped in black.

The draping, which also covered his spot on the bench, "signifies a period of mourning the loss of our friend and colleague," Roberts said. Scalia's seat will remain draped for the next month.

Roberts began Monday's session with a tribute to Scalia, recounting milestones in the justice's life, sometimes with humor.

Scalia argued only one case before the Supreme Court in 1976 for the Justice Department, "establishing a perfect record before this court," Roberts said, drawing laughter.

"He was also known on occasion to dissent," Roberts joked again.

The Supreme Court's 103rd justice was appointed to the court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, and wrote 282 majority opinions.

"He gave 30 years of his life in service to the country he so loved," Roberts said. "We cannot forget his irrepressible spirit."

Roberts said the court, along with the bar, will hold its own memorial service "at the appropriate time."

The court heard arguments in two cases during its first session without Scalia. The first case dealt with the semantics of contract laws as they relate to the Department of Veteran Affairs, and whether the agency is mandated to award all of its contracts to veteran-owned companies when certain criteria are met.

The second case delved into Fourth Amendment issues, and whether evidence can be suppressed if it's discovered afterward that an officer made an arrest after an unlawful detention.

The case stems from a 2006 anonymous call to a tip line that reported a suspected narcotics house in South Salt Lake City, Utah.

A detective eyed respondent Edward Strieff leaving the house on foot and then cornered him in a convenience store parking lot for questioning. The detective had never seen Strieff at the house during three hours of intermittent observation spanning a week.

The detective asked for Strieff's identification and then discovered an outstanding warrant for a minor traffic violation. The detective then arrested Strieff, searched him and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

The state of Utah acknowledged the stop was unlawful, and Strieff is asking for the evidence against him to be suppressed because of that.

However, the state argued for the admission of evidence because it found the drugs while Streiff was in lawful custody after a lawful arrest based on a legitimate, outstanding warrant.

"Once the arrest is lawful, the search incident to it is lawful, and all the evidence gathered in any search is lawfully seized," Tyler R. Green, Utah solicitor general, said.

During Green's opening remarks, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she saw little difference between Strieff's initial detention and officers stopping the first person they see.

"What stops us from becoming a police state and just having the police stand on the corner down here and stop every person, ask them for identification, put it through, and if a warrant comes up, searching them?" she asked.

"So what's our rule now? Now you don't need reasonable suspicion to stop someone. You only need questionable reasonable suspicion to stop someone," Sotomayor quipped, drawing laughter.

For Strieff, the issue is no laughing matter. Suppression of the evidence in his case could serve as a necessary deterrent to prevent police misconduct, his attorney Joan C. Watt argued before the court.

"It would create a powerful incentive for police officers to detain citizens without concern for the Fourth Amendment, knowing that finding a warrant would wipe the slate clean and render the constitutional violation irrelevant," Watt said.

She added that officers could use this power to target specific communities, adding that the detective stopped Strieff as part of a "fishing expedition" in hopes that something would turn up.

"It would create a new form of investigation. Officers would be stopping citizens and hunting for warrants. It's already the practice in many communities and if Utah's rule is adopted, it will become the norm," Watts said.

The number of people with outstanding warrants who would also have contraband is too low to induce officers to conduct illegal stops just to find warrants, Justice Department attorney John F. Bash said, adding that applies to high-crime areas as well.

Roberts addressed the issue of officer safety in relation to warrant checks.

"It would be, I think, bad police work to not run the warrant check until after you've had an interaction with the person, when the danger that you could have found out about might have been when it's too late to act on it," Roberts said.

The high court is expected to issue its ruling later this spring.

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