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SCOTUS ruling on Utah drug case could affect police searches

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SALT LAKE CITY — Evidence collected by police after they arrest a suspect can potentially be admitted in court, even if the initial stop by officers was illegal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday on a Utah drug case.

In a 5-3 ruling, the nation's high court decided that drugs found on a man who had a minor warrant out for his arrest but was illegally detained by a South Salt Lake police officer in 2006 could be admitted as evidence in court.

The decision in Utah vs Strieff overturns the ruling by the Utah Supreme Court, which determined the drugs could not be admitted. It also seemingly eases the guidelines established by the so-called exclusionary rule, which makes evidence that is collected illegally inadmissible in court.

"We're deeply disappointed in the court's ruling," John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, said Monday. "It does increase the chance that if you're stopped unconstitutionally that evidence gathered after that could potentially come against you, which we believe undermines Fourth Amendment protections."

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, however, said his office was "delighted" by Monday's ruling.

"The court's ruling … corrects an erroneous opinion that made Utah an outlier on this important search-and-seizure issue," Utah Solicitor General Tyler Green said. "Now courts and prosecutors throughout the country know to follow what has long been the majority rule: Evidence seized in a search incident to an arrest on a valid warrant can be introduced during a defendant's trial as long as the initial stop did not flagrantly violate the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights."

In December 2006, South Salt Lake police detective Douglas Fackrell was holding surveillance on a suspected drug house. After Edward Strieff left the house, Fackrell stopped him at a nearby parking lot to question him. When he asked for his ID and ran a background check, the officer discovered that Strieff had an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation. At that point, Fackrell placed Strieff under arrest. During a subsequent search of Strieff, the officer found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

Strieff claimed his Fourth Amendment rights of unreasonable search and seizure were violated. The Utah Supreme Court agreed and said the drugs that were found were not admissible in court.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court, conceded that Fackrell's initial stop lacked reasonable suspicion.

"But the court has also held that, even when there is a Fourth Amendment violation, this exclusionary rule does not apply when the costs of exclusion outweigh its deterrent benefits. In some cases, for example, the link between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence is too attenuated to justify suppression."

Thomas called Fackrell's initial stop "negligent" and a "good-faith mistake."

"While officer Fackrell’s decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful," Thomas wrote. "There is no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct. To the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the stop was an isolated instance of negligence that occurred in a suspected drug house."

The court's three female justices all dissented.

"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," Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated in her strongly worded dissent. "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. Because the Fourth Amendment should prohibit, not permit, such misconduct, I dissent," she wrote.

Mejia concurred that the ruling has "troubling implications" for constitutional rights because there's now more incentive for a police officer to potentially act on a "hunch" and illegal detain someone.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, "It is tempting in a case like this, where illegal conduct by an officer uncovers illegal conduct by a civilian, to forgive the officer. After all, his instincts, although unconstitutional, were correct. But a basic principle lies at the heart of the Fourth Amendment: Two wrongs don’t make a right.

"This court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you," Sotomayor wrote. "When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens."

Reyes, in a prepared statement, noted that Strieff's arrest was not the result of "flagrant police misconduct," which made the evidence admissible in court.

Justice Thomas further stated in the court's opinion that the ruling would not open the door for an increase in police officers randomly stopping and questioning citizens.

"Strieff argues that because of the prevalence of outstanding arrest warrants in many jurisdictions, police will engage in dragnet searches if the exclusionary rule is not applied. We think that this outcome is unlikely. Such wanton conduct would expose police to civil liability," he wrote.

Green concurred that he does not believe the ruling opens the door for officers to conduct random searches on a "hunch," hoping they'll find drugs or other evidence.

"Strieff preserves the incentive established by the exclusionary rule itself: Law enforcement officers should comply with the Fourth Amendment. As the majority opinion correctly states, wanton police misconduct could subject officers to civil liability and lead to the suppression of evidence. No officer wants those outcomes. Accordingly, even after Strieff, the incentive remains for police officers to comply with Fourth Amendment — that's their only surefire way to avoid being sued or losing evidence in their cases," he said.

Despite the ruling, Mejia said citizens are still protected from being detained unconstitutionally.

"Today's ruling is disappointing. But at the end of the day it does not change the underlying protection that we have from unreasonable searches and seizures. The police still need to articulate a reason why they're stopping us or why they're searching us if it's without our consent. Today's ruling doesn't change that bedrock protection."

The case will now return to the Utah courts for further proceedings consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion, according to the Utah Attorney General's Office.

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