The Supremes are back in business, even if they’re down a man at the moment, and they are considering the arguments they heard in Utah v. Streiff. This case could redefine the rights of the police when it comes to finding evidence of crimes through incidental means. A brief explanation of this specific incident is offered in the Baltimore Sun.
The case, Utah v. Strieff, involves a veteran narcotics detective who stopped a 46-year-old man in 2006 as he left a suspected drug house. The officer had no reason to believe the man had committed a crime, and the state acknowledged the stop was illegal. But the officer discovered the man had an outstanding warrant, arrested him and then found he was carrying methamphetamine.
Civil rights advocates are concerned that a ruling for the police could give law enforcement an incentive to stop more people — particularly in high crime areas — on questionable legal grounds, as fishing expeditions for warrants that would justify a search.
These types of Fourth Amendment cases are the ones where I frequently run afoul of the Big L Libertarians out there and it runs parallel to the issues I have with the whole Fruit from the Poisonous Tree premise. The Strieff arrest is one of those situations where the cops had to justify why they pulled a particular motorist over and what use – if any – could be made of evidence found during the stop. In this case, Streiff was observed leaving a residence which was under surveillance for suspected drug activity and was pulled over. Later, it was found that the driver had an outstanding warrant on him. Upon being arrested, illegal drugs were found on his person and he was tried and convicted.
I realize that Libertarians have books on this subject which go on for miles and the courts are entangled in many rules covering these scenarios, but you’ll excuse me if the layman doesn’t always see how this lines up with the intent of the Fourth Amendment. We are supposed to be protected from oppressive badgering and searches by law enforcement unless they have due cause to believe that we’re breaking the law. From the ten thousand foot perspective, it has always sounded to me like the amendment was designed to protect the innocent from unwarranted aggression by the state.
But I fail to see how this applies in so many of these cases. For example, Streiff was seen leaving a house which was already under investigation. Obviously that doesn’t prove that he was involved in any illicit activity, but it certainly sounds as if that makes him worth a brief discussion to see if he was involved. Beyond that, the guy already had a warrant out on him so, in theory, any cop who recognized him could have pulled up and nabbed him simply for walking down the street. And finally, when he left the drug house… he had the drugs on him. At what point does this pile up to a sufficient amount of evidence to say that you pulled over the right guy? If the police pull someone over under those circumstances and see a dead body in the back seat are they supposed to ignore it and let the motorist go on his way because they weren’t out investigating a homicide that day?
The protections we have under the Bill of Rights are vital, but it all too often seems as if clever lawyers find ways to use them as a shield to get the obviously guilty off the hook on a technicality. Is that really what the Founders intended or were they actually concerned about protecting the law abiding from undue oppression by the government? When you turn out to not be one of the law abiding, shouldn’t the courts temper those iron clad protections a bit?