Erosion of The 4th Amendment is Bad For Everyone Except Police

By Zachary Siegel 06/21/16

A divided Supreme Court's recent ruling on unlawful searching has drawn major criticism across the country and a powerful dissent from one Justice.

Erosion of The 4th Amendment is Bad For Everyone Except Police

In 2006, South Salt Lake police in Utah received an anonymous tip alleging “narcotics activity” around a residential home. A detective surveilling the home stopped one Edward Strieff, Jr. to question him about the suspicious activity. During that stop, the officer searched Strieff because he had an outstanding, though unrelated, warrant which then led to the discovery of methamphetamine and paraphernalia found on his person. 

Strieff challenged his arrest, arguing the officer lacked probable cause for the search. A district court allowed the evidence to enter court but the Utah Court of Appeals reversed that decision in 2015, siding with Strieff; because the search was unlawful the evidence was inadmissible. 

This was a big win for drug policy and civil liberty. 

But on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5 to 3 to reverse that ruling, which means courts no longer have to suppress evidence of a crime even if the arresting officer obtained the evidence by using unlawful tactics. Police with wanton power have long been able to sneak shoddy evidence into court by stomping on the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizures. More so than ever, now they have precedent to do so. 

Aside from sidestepping the 4th amendment, what’s most notable and has everyone talking, is the fierce dissent from three of the court’s liberal judges, particularly that of Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 

“This case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time,” she wrote. “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.”

“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated.’ They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.”

What does this mean for the drug war? Sadly, more of the same. If you are walking down the street, for example, an officer can run your identification and if, say, a bench warrant for an unpaid ticket comes up, that officer can then search you based on that alone. What’s most egregious is that African Americans and Latinos are stopped more often than whites, despite the fact they are less likely to be in possession of illegal drugs. Minorities, once again, will likely bear the brunt of bad drug policy. 

It isn’t just minorities who’ve lost protection from unlawful search and seizures under the 4th Amendment. For example, “drug couriers” are profiled by highway police with absurd criteria. If you’re speeding, which everyone does, then that’s grounds for being pulled over and searched. However, if you painstakingly follow all traffic laws, that too is grounds for a search. What’s in it for police to target just about every car on the road? Money. Based on civil asset forfeiture policies, if you’re at all suspected of having drug ties, whatever cash you have on your person can be seized. Guilty or not, that money is likely never to be seen again because it winds up fattening the department’s budget. 

The erosion of our 4th Amendment is clearly bad for everyone, except police. 

You can read Sotomayor’s dissent in full here

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.