The Supreme Court ruled in Utah v. Strieff yesterday that an individual who is illegally detained, and then found to have a warrant out for his or her arrest, is subject to a lawful search and seizure.
The vote was split 5-3 down gender lines, with the women of the Court unanimously siding with the defendant. In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonya Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Parts I, II, and III, chastised the majority for their ruling, arguing that it contradicts previous Court decisions that had deemed such evidence inadmissible as “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
The case revolves around Edward Strieff, who was stopped after leaving a house that police were monitoring under suspicion that the location was a sight of drug activity. Though the officer was not aware of how long Strieff had been in the house, he followed him a short distance before unlawfully stopping him so as to question him and relay Strieff’s information to dispatch. The officer was alerted to an outstanding traffic warrant, at which time he conducted a search of the suspect and found a small amount of methamphetamine on his person. Strieff’s council argued that the original detainment had been unconstitutional, making all evidence collected after he was stopped inadmissible.
The Utah Supreme Court had originally sided with Strieff, as it was the lower courts understanding that admitting the methamphetamine into evidence would condone the officer’s illegal detention of the man in question. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling because, as Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion, “the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized incident to arrest.” According to the majority, only when an officer engages in “flagrant police misconduct”—which is never defined in the decision—can the search be considered illegal.
Though Strieff is white, Sotomayor made sure to outline the implications of this decision for minority communities. Already disproportionately targeted by the state, Sotomayor retorted the Court’s majority, noting, “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.”
In stating this fact, Sotomayor draws parallels to cases like Ferguson, Missouri—where the Department of Justice found that 76% of the town’s population had outstanding warrants against them—as examples of how expanding police powers in this manner will only serve to harm minority communities.
Justice Sotomayor continues, “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. 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 Court’s ruling not only legitimizes the type of police profiling that indiscriminately targets people of color, it reinforces the notion that the state is entitled to control a citizen’s body autonomy, a precedent that does not bode well as women’s private healthcare decisions are being targeted for judicial scrutiny.
Sotomayor’s dissent ends with a warning: “We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated,’” she says. “They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere.”