Here's How the Latest SCOTUS Ruling Affects Your Fourth Amendment Rights

June 21st 2016

The Supreme Court just delivered what many are seeing as a major blow to constitutional rights.

traffic stopWikimedia/versageek - wikimedia.org

In a 5-3 decision Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that evidence discovered in a search by police during unlawful stops can be used in court, so long as police officers conducted the search only after learning the person had an outstanding warrant.

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that a police officer's "negligence" in making a stop without reasonable suspicion should not preclude the defendant from being charged with a drug offense.

Clarence ThomasSteve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States - wikipedia.org

The ruling follows a case in Salt Lake City, in which Police Detective Doug Fackrell illegally stopped defendant Edward Strieff, who he only later determined had an outstanding warrant. Fackrell arrested Strieff after finding methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia during a routine search.

Following the ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted that the decision would have "terrible repercussions."

Here's what you need to know about the ruling, and how it could affect you.

The Fourth Amendment and "exclusionary rule"

Under the Fourth Amendment, Americans are guaranteed protection from unreasonable search and seizure by the government. This means police cannot search a person, a property, a home or a businesses without a search warrant, an arrest warrant, or probable cause.

With the recent ruling, the Supreme Court undermined a portion of this amendment known as the "exclusionary rule," which excludes illegally seized evidence from being presented in trial. In layman's terms, a police officer who pulls you over for no good reason and then searches you can present any evidence found against you in court, so long as the officer determined you had an outstanding warrant after pulling you over.

police tapeTony Webster - flickr.com

In the past, the exclusionary rule provided a good reason for police officers to respect the Fourth Amendment, because they knew any evidence they found would be thrown out if they had violated the Constitution in order to get it. That will change under this ruling.

"The exclusionary rule serves a crucial function — to deter unconstitutional police conduct," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent. "By barring the use of illegally obtained evidence, courts reduce the temptation for police officers to skirt the Fourth Amendment’s requirements."

The ruling affects everyone.

According to Justice Sonia Sotomayor's dissent, around 7.8 million people have outstanding warrants in state and federal databases. Of these, she said, "The vast majority appear to be minor offenses."

“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.”

The ruling may disproportionately affect people of color.

In 2011, the last year the Bureau of Justice Statistics gathered data about traffic stops, police searched 2 percent of the white people, 6 percent of the Black people, and 7 percent of the Hispanic people they pulled over. "It is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny,” Sotomayor wrote.

Let's use Ferguson, Missouri, as an example. A Department of Justice investigation of the city's police department following the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown found that law enforcement routinely violated the civil rights of Black citizens. Sotomayor's dissent notes that 16,000 of Ferguson's 21,000 citizens have outstanding warrants, and that the ruling will validate policing tactics in which officers are encouraged to “stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”

FergusonPaul Sableman/Wikimedia Commons - flickr.com

The ruling greatly expands police power.

This ruling greatly expands police power at a time when, after a number of high-profile police shooting cases came into the national spotlight and brought the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, police conduct is under intense scrutiny.

Sotomayor wrote:

"We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are 'isolated.' They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but."

Sotomayor also described how the scope of police power has been changed by the court ruling:

"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. 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.”

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