Supreme Court sides with Utah police on search and seizure case

KUTV Supreme Justice 06.JPG

(KUTV) On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the police department in a case that goes back to 2006.

At the heart of the issue is the fourth amendment. In a 5 to 3 ruling, the nation's highest court ruled that evidence seized after a suspect is arrested on a valid warrant, even during an illegal traffic stop, can be admissible in court.

"We were disappointed with today's ruling," says John Mejia, Legal Director of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union, known as the ACLU. He's worried the court's ruling could open the door for future violations of Fourth Amendment rights.

"Police actually need a reason to stop you. The baseline is always going to be you have a right to be free from government interference without consent unless the government can articulate a reason for why they're doing that."

The ruling stems from an incident in December 2006. Edward Joseph Strieff was stopped by a detective after leaving a house where there was a suspected drug operation.

The Attorney General's Office acknowledges the initial stop was illegal, but during that stop, the detective learned Strieff had an outstanding traffic warrant, so he was arrested and searched. The search revealed Strieff was carrying illegal drugs.

"The evidence wasn't discovered until after that lawful arrest was made. We think that's a sufficient break in the causal chain of the earlier illegality to make the evidence admissible," said Tyler Green, Utah's Solicitor General.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled Strieff's conviction could not be upheld because the evidence was obtained illegally, violating the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

"That's when our office looked at it and asked the Supreme Court of the United States to grant review and it did," said Green, who represented the Utah AG's office before the high court. They sided with him in a 5 to 3 decision.

Justice Clarence Thomas issued the ruling, saying, in part: "The majority in the 5-3 opinion said the evidence seized after a suspect is arrested on a valid warrant -- even if that warrant was discovered in an illegal stop -- is admissible in court as long as the stop is not the result of flagrant police misconduct."

The Utah ACLU says now anyone who is involved in an illegal stop has a higher burden to show there was something egregiously wrong with the stop.

"It is our sincere hope that police don't start using today's ruling as an excuse to start conducting dragnet stops," said Mejia.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was an outspoken dissenting vote, in her opinion, she wrote: "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."

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