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Supreme Court judgment supports unconstitutional police stop

August 10, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Utah Supreme Court decision in which evidence used to convict Edward Joseph Strieff Jr. was not admissible because the stop was unlawful. Strieff had been stopped by police officers as he left a home that was under surveillance for drug activity. The officer ran his identification and discovered an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation. This discovery allowed police to physically search Strieff whereupon they found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the 5-3 majority and declared that while the stop was unconstitutional, he still felt that it was justifiable once authorities discovered the arrest warrant, especially after they confiscated the related evidence. However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first justice of Hispanic heritage, has a number of concerns regarding this decision. In her dissenting opinion, Sotomayor wrote that the authorities overstepped their boundaries and that previous court cases required that the evidence be dismissed as fruit of the poisonous tree.

Sotomayor further expanded in her dissent that the ruling permits authorities to randomly stop anyone, ask them for identification and then search records for any outstanding warrants. She additionally expressed fears that the ruling could negatively impact people of color who would be unfairly targeted, especially with the political climate in the nation. She cited regular talks that black and brown parents have with their children regarding proper interactions with authorities in order to protect themselves during any type of police contact.

Thomas wrote that he did not have any concerns about police misconduct related to this specific stop. However, Sotomayor disagreed and declared that no matter the race or innocence or guilt of a person, the police could confirm his or her legal status. Authorities could search a person without grounds, thus violating his or her rights as a citizen, effectively treating him or her as a number.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Strieff case, continued legal challenges might yet arise when it comes to arrests and the rights of minorities. If you think that you were unfairly targeted due to race in a traffic stop, contact our office for legal assistance.

Larry Bellomo is an Orange County attorney practicing Family and Bankruptcy Law.