The fourth amendment of the US basically states that you have a right to be secure and free from unreasonable searches. Specifically it states: "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated..." More recent court cases are redefining what "reasonable" v. "unreasonable" searches actually are. It would seem that slowly but surely our fourth amendment is slipping away.
The Story of a "Reasonable" Search from an Illegal Stop
On June 20, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in Utah v. Strieff that evidence found by law enforcement after an illegal stop may be used in a court case at a later date if the officers conducted their searches based on learning the defendants had outstanding arrest warrants.
In the case, an anonymous tip regarding "narcotics activity" at a house was the probable cause used by an officer to stop Edward Strieff after he left the house. The Government later admitted the stop was based on insufficient grounds - making the stop unlawful.
However, after the officer ran a check, he discovered a warrant was out for Mr. Strieff for a minor traffic violation. Mr. Strieff was then arrested and searched which resulted in the officer finding drugs and drug paraphernalia. The question for the Court became whether the drugs had to be suppressed (i.e., not able to be used in the court case) based on the unlawful stop or if they could be used as evidence based on the outstanding arrest warrant.
On June 20, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in Utah v. Strieff that evidence found by law enforcement after an illegal stop may be used in a court case if the officers conducted their searches based on learning the defendants had outstanding arrest warrants.
What the Supreme Court Justices Had to Say
Justice Clarence, writing for the 5-to-3 majority opinion, found that such searches don't violate the 4th Amendment when the warrant is valid and unconnected to the conduct that prompted the stop. He went on to state the officer was "at most negligent" and that there was no evidence that the officer's illegal search reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued the Court had vastly expanded police power. She stated:
“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.”
She went on to assert:
“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.”
Finally, Justice Sotomayor eloquently articulated:
"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."
What Are The Consquences of their Decision?
I do not agree with Justice Sotomayor on a lot of things, but her powerful dissent in this case rings true. Unfortunately, the majority's holding in this case just further whittles away our Constitutional rights. This ruling will allow law enforcement to profile people, conduct illegal stops or searches and then receive a "mulligan" if the person has a warrant out for forgetting to pay a $10 parking ticket. While this ruling will disproportionally negatively effect the poor and people of color, it has grim repercussions for all citizens.
So, is the 4th Amendment dead? My answer is no, not yet, but it's closer to the grave today than it was yesterday.