In our last post, we began a discussion about a controversial ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. It seems to violate a long-held principle about how evidence must be obtained if it is to be used in court.
The Fourth Amendment protects us against illegal search and seizure. Usually, police officers must have a warrant in order to conduct a search. And if an individual is detained by police, the stop must be based on reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. If a stop was made without reasonable suspicion and was followed by a warrantless search, most legal experts would agree that evidence obtained during that search would be inadmissible in court. But the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled otherwise.
In short, five of the eight justices held that if police stop someone for no justifiable reason and then do a background check, they can subsequently conduct a search if the background check turns up an outstanding arrest warrant. It doesn’t matter what the arrest warrant pertains to.
In an impassioned dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained why this decision can (and likely will) lead to police abuses. She said: “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. 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.”
Outstanding warrants may seem like a rare problem, but they are far more common than most people realize. In 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, roughly 75 percent of the city’s (mostly black) population had outstanding arrest warrants. These were primarily related to traffic infractions. In New York City, there are some 1.2 million outstanding warrants.
Although data for Wisconsin is not easily available, it seems safe to assume that there are plenty of residents with outstanding warrants for relatively minor offenses. In light of this ruling, there is little to stop police officers from illegally detaining suspects and searching any who have an outstanding warrant.
Only time will tell the exact consequences of this ruling. But it is difficult to understand how the Supreme Court could have made a decision that so limits individual privacy rights while greatly expanding the powers of law enforcement.