Sotomayor Blasts Boot-Strap OK of Search

     (CN) — Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted the high court’s majority Monday for finding that drug-related evidence from an unconstitutional stop was admissible in light of an outstanding arrest warrant.
     The Utah Supreme Court reversed the conviction by conditional guilty plea of Edward Strieff Jr. in 2015. Originally charged with possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, Strieff moved to suppress evidence gleaned from a stop by the arresting officer – a motion denied by both trial and appeals courts.
     Strieff argued that the arresting officer lacked reasonable cause to stop him, since the officer had only seen him coming out of a house under surveillance for drug activity but did not see him enter or do anything illegal. Furthermore, the officer arrested Strieff for a “small traffic warrant” and then searched him, finding the meth and drug paraphernalia.
     But while the trial court believed the officer had reasonable cause to stop Strieff based on what he saw going on at the house – and the appeals court believed the outstanding traffic warrant was sufficient cause – Utah’s high court held that because Strieff didn’t consent to be searched or confess to any crime, the officer’s illegal stop could not be excused as a good-faith call regardless of the outstanding warrant.
     The state appealed the reversal to the nation’s high court, which agreed in October to hear the case. Oral arguments were heard in February.
     On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that “attenuation” factors from the high court’s 1975 decision in Brown v. Illinois support the admission of evidence from Strieff’s arrest.
     The attenuation doctrine “provides for admissibility when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is sufficiently remote or has been interrupt­ed by some intervening circumstance,” according to the ruling.
     “The question in this case is whether this attenuation doctrine applies when an officer makes an unconstitutional investigatory stop; learns during that stop that the suspect is subject to a valid arrest warrant; and proceeds to arrest the suspect and seize incriminating evidence during a search incident to that arrest,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “We hold that the evidence the officer seized as part of the search incident to arrest is admissible because the officer’s dis­covery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized inci­dent to arrest.”
     Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan each filed dissenting opinions, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined in both of them.
     “The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights,” Sotomayor wrote. “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.”
     Slamming the majority opinion, Sotomayor continued by saying that “unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives.”
     “By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time,” she wrote. “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.”
     Kagan said in her separate dissenting opinion that the majority’s ruling “places Fourth Amendment protections at risk.”
     “The question here is whether the prohibition on admitting evidence dissolves if the officer discovers, after making the stop but before finding the drugs, that the person has an outstanding arrest warrant. Because that added wrinkle makes no difference under the Constitution, I respectfully dissent,” Kagan wrote.

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