Decided - The FindLaw Noteworthy Decisions and Settlements Blog

Supreme Court Shifts Perspective on Illegal Police Stops

It used to be that if a police stop was unreasonable, evidence found after that illegal stop was excluded from a case when successfully challenged in court. This week, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that evidence from an unreasonable stop can be retroactively validated by a pre-existing warrant.

The ruling seems confusing and of little consequence to many. However, it's actually a big deal because millions of people have outstanding warrants for small infractions. Also, the decision shifts the angle on time and evidence in criminal cases. In the words of one dissenter, "Do not be soothed by the technical language." Let's consider the opinions -- majority and dissent -- and why this case is significant.

Relaxing Exclusion

The ruling is based on a case arising in Utah, reports the Los Angeles Times. In it, a police officer stopped a man without reasonable suspicion and discovered he had an outstanding warrant, as well as methamphetamine in his possession. The earlier warrant was found to validate the stop, although it was technically unreasonable.

The ruling essentially changes the angle on time and evidence in criminal cases, shifting the perspective from which they are assessed quite dramatically. Now cops can stop people for no reason and if they find an outstanding warrant, the unreasonable stop is retrospectively reasonable.

Clearing It Up

This decision incentivizes illegal stops, according to those who opposed it. The three dissenters happen to be the High Court's three female justices -- Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Sonia Sotomayor very clearly laid out consequences for citizens in her dissent, warning:

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.

So, our constitutional rights were just dealt a blow. But relax. All the guys on the High Court say it's not so bad.

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