Supreme Court expands availability of evidence obtained during unlawful stops, drawing powerful dissent from Justice Sotomayor.

Photo by Mark Fischer

On Monday, in a 5–3 decision the Supreme Court held that evidence found during unlawful police stops could be used in court if the officers involved found an outstanding arrest warrant during the stop. The case, Utah v. Strieff, modifies the “exclusionary rule,” which provides that evidence obtained through an unlawful search is usually excluded from court.

Justice Kagan argued in her dissent that the Court’s holding practically invites officers to make illegal stops: “The officer’s incentive to violate the Constitution thus increases: From here on, he sees potential advantage in stopping individuals without reasonable suspicion — exactly the temptation the exclusionary rule is supposed to remove.”

Justice Sotomayor also dissented, emphasizing the racial dimensions of unlawful stops and unconstitutional searches:

This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes, many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches, The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner. But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. For generations, black and brown parents have given their children “the talk” — instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger — all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.
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.

Insufficient data about racially biased stops makes quantifying these problems difficult. As Vignesh Ramachandran and Katie Kramon report in the Marshall Project:

This information is hard to come by because of a patchwork of laws and regulations across the country, a research project at Stanford University has found. The project — Law, Order & Algorithms — has found that even though a little more than half the states, 31, routinely collect data on race (based on officer perception), the way it’s collected is far from uniform.
Even where data exist, some states have not analyzed it. Even fewer states make the information available for public review.