The Supreme Court of the United States empowered law enforcement officials this week, "ruling that evidence of a crime in some cases may be used against a defendant even if the police did something wrong or illegal in obtaining it," the Associated Press reported on Monday.
The case in question, Utah v. Strieff, involved police officers who illegally stopped defendant Joseph Edward Strieff without reasonable suspicion in South Salt Lake City, Utah, then arrested him on a prior traffic warrant and discovered he was carrying methamphetamine in a subsequent search. In a 5-3 decision with Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy siding with the conservative wing of the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the New York Times wrote, the court ruled the search did not violate Strieff's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"There is no evidence ... [the] illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. "... The officer's discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized incident to arrest."
But it was Justice Sonia Sotomayor's heartfelt, impassioned dissent which attracted the most attention. Her written opinion, which the Times noted "cited W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates," argued the decision would encourage racial profiling.
"The white defendant in this case shows that anyone's dignity can be violated in this manner," Sotomayor wrote. "... But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny ... [the decision] says you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged."
"We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are 'isolated,'" the justice wrote. "They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere ... until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but. I dissent."
According to Boston College Law School professor Robert M. Bloom, however, the ruling is consistent with the Roberts-led court's trajectory on the protections afforded criminal defendants.
"The Supreme Court in recent years has cut back substantially on the exclusionary rule, which is designed to deter police from illegality," says Bloom. "They look at the cost of the exclusionary rule, which is the suppression of evidence, versus the benefits, which is the deterrence of the police."
Bloom called it a classic example of a debate over the fruits of the poisonous tree, a legal metaphor used to describe whether police can use legitimate evidence obtained using unconstitutional means.
"If the trunk of the tree is illegal, how far does the tree grow in terms of suppression of the evidence?" added Bloom. "In this case, they said not very far at all."
According to Bloom, the ruling is "a continuum of the court's disfavor with the exclusionary rule," which has become a trend in the past five years under Roberts' tenure as chief justice.
"Police can stop someone for whatever reason, find a minor traffic violation, and then arrest them and search them," he concluded. "What happened here is an illegal stop. That's the tree ... the fact that somebody was stopped illegally is going to be ignored. They're going to say that this outstanding warrant attenuates the taint ... this adds to the continuum, this doesn't create it."