US Supreme Court Drastically Scales Back Use of Exclusionary Rule to Deter Illegal Police Conduct


6/20/16  The Exclusionary Rule is a constitutional law principle which says in its basic terms that prosecutors should not be able to use evidence at trial which the police obtained illegally in violation of a person’s constitutionally guaranteed rights.  The idea is the rights would mean nothing if the police could ignore those constitutional rights and use the evidence they obtain against the person at trial.  Excluding the evidence at trial deters the police from violating the rights in the first place.  A limitation on the Exclusionary Rule is, if the police would have obtained the evidence some other way than by violating those rights that evidence may be used at trial.

 

On June 20, 2016, in Utah v. Strieff, No. 14–1373, the United States Supreme Court refused to apply the exclusionary rule in the case of a defendant was unlawfully stopped by police.

 

In the case the police were conducting surveillance of a house which may have been used for drugs sales.  The police stopped and questioned the defendant as he was coming out the house.  After questioning the defendant the police ran a record check and found the defendant had an outstanding bench warrant.  In a search incident to the arrest the police found illegal drugs and the defendant was charged with drug possession.  The defendant made a motion to suppress the use of the drugs at trial by contending he was illegally stopped by the police.  The prosecutor agreed the stop of the defendant was illegal, however, contended he was placed under arrest as a result of the warrant and not the stop and so the evidence (the drugs) was not obtained as a result of the illegal stop.  The trial court agreed with the prosecutor and denied the defendant’s motion.  The Utah Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling and the prosecutor appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

 

In a 5-3 ruling authored by Justice Thomas the Supreme Court reversed the Utah Supreme Court’s decision.  In doing so Justice Thomas said the drugs were obtained by police after they learned of the warrant and not as a result of the stop.  Justice Thomas also said the police misconduct of stopping someone without a legal reason was simply negligent on the officer’s part.  Since the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter deliberate misconduct and not mere negligence, and since there was no deliberate misconduct in this case, no purpose would be served by applying the exclusionary rule.

 

In a very strongly worded dissent Justice Sotomayor questioned Justice Thomas’s characterization of the facts, and law, and made plain the real potential impact of the decision.

 

First she noted the police conduct in this case was not some minor negligent conduct, but rather part of a deliberate practice of that police department to engage in illegal stops of individuals.  She said that department’s policy was to regularly stop people without any legal justification to run their names to see if they had any warrants outstanding.  Secondly, the police deliberately and illegally stopped the defendant to see if they could obtain information to aid in the investigation of possible drug sales in the house and so the case was not just a mistaken negligent stop of a person.  Third she said the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter illegal conduct.  Under this new case if the police illegally stop someone, run a record check and get lucky by finding an outstanding warrant there are no consequences for the illegal stop of the person in the first place.  Therefore, she said, the police could target people more likely to have warrants outstanding and violate the rights of that group of people without any consequences.  In perhaps a pointed reference to Justice Thomas, who is black, she said this decision will disproportionally affect people of color because it is more likely they will have an outstanding warrant for something minor, such as unpaid court fines.  Indeed she said, for an example, the Department of Justice recently reported that in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, with a population of 21,000, 16,000 people had outstanding warrants against them.

 

The decision may be found at:

 

http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/14-1373_83i7.pdf

 

A New York Times article about the case may be found at:

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/us/supreme-court-says-police-may-use-evidence-found-after-illegal-stops.html?emc=edit_tnt_20160620&nlid=57856426&tntemail0=y&_r=0

 

 

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