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Justice Sotomayor Delivers Blistering Dissent In Utah Search Case


If a police officer illegally stops and detains someone, can evidence gathered in that time period be used against the individual? Today, the U.S. Supreme Court said, yes, in one particular scenario. The court said police who stop a person for no stated reason can check for an outstanding warrant. And if they find one, they can conduct a search and use that evidence to prosecute. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The Supreme Court has long held that when police illegally stop or search someone without at minimum reasonable suspicion, any incriminating evidence they find cannot be used in court. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. And today, the Supreme Court carved out a new and big one, giving police far broader authority to search people who were stopped for no stated reason.

The decision came in the case of Edward Strieff who was stopped after leaving a house that was under police observation because of an anonymous tip that it was being used for drug dealing. Though narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell later admitted he had no reason to believe Strieff had done anything wrong, he stopped him demanded that he identify himself and detained him while radioing in to see if there were any outstanding warrants against Strieff.

As it turned out, there was one for a minor traffic offense, so the detective searched Strieff and found a small amount of methamphetamines. The Utah Supreme Court later threw out the drug conviction because it stemmed from an illegal stop. Today, however, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the conviction. Writing for the five-justice majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that officer Fackrell's discovery of the outstanding warrant broke the connection to the unconstitutional stop. And that therefore the evidence found in the search could be used to prosecute Strieff. The generally liberal Justice Stephen Breyer provided the fifth vote to make a majority. The court's three other liberals dissented in two separate opinions.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote a barnburner. Today's decision, she said, will allow police as here to stop someone on what amounts to a whim or a hunch, and then leverage that stop to conduct a search based on a minor outstanding warrant that the cop didn't know about to begin with. She noted that according to state and federal databases, there are over 7.8 million open warrants, the vast majority of which are for minor offenses. In metropolitan St. Louis, she observed the Just Department found that officers routinely stop people on the street, at bus stops or even in courthouses for no reason other than to check whether the subject has an outstanding warrant.

Jonathan Smith was until 2015 the chief of the Justice Department section that conducted systemic investigations of police misconduct.

JONATHAN SMITH: The combined effect of this immense number of warrants that are out there for very, very minor offenses with practices like stop and frisk and the kinds of conduct you saw in the Strieff case by the Supreme Court today are creating, you know, this huge tension between communities - particularly communities of color - and their police. And they're not promoting public safety.

TOTENBERG: Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a former prosecutor now at the Brennan Center's Justice Program says today's ruling can be an incentive for police to concentrate illegal stops on neighborhoods where there are the most outstanding warrants.

LAUREN-BROOKE EISEN: And the reason that's such a scary proposition is because most of the people in this country who have open warrants are poor.

TOTENBERG: Too poor to pay a lawyer to get rid of the warrant. Justice Sotomayor concluded her dissent today writing, she said, for herself alone, based on her personal experiences. By legitimizing the conduct in this case, the court tells everyone white and black, guilty and innocent that you can be stopped at any time, she said. 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.

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are as the majority maintains isolated cases, she said. Until their voices matter, too, our justice system will continue to be anything but. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.