Supreme Court Bummer: Justices Open Door to More Lawless Police Searches
In a pair of decisions released Monday, the US Supreme Court again demonstrated its deference to law enforcement priorities, in one case by expanding an exception to the long-standing ruling requiring that unlawfully gathered evidence be discarded and in another by holding that drug dealers, even those engaged only in street-corner sales, are engaged in interstate commerce.
The two decisions expand the ability of local police to skirt the law without effective punishment on the one hand, and allow prosecutors to use the weight of the federal criminal justice system to come down on small-time criminals whose cases would normally be the purview of local authorities on the other. Taken together, the decisions show a high court that once again give great deference to the demands of law enforcement.
In the first case, Utah v. Strieff, the Supreme Court held that evidence obtained from the illegal stop of Strieff should not be thrown out under the exclusionary rule, which requires that illegally seized be suppressed as "fruit of the poisonous tree." The exclusionary rule, which dates back to 1920 and values the rule of law even at the expense of seeing a guilty suspect go free, has long been a bane of judicial conservatives, who have been trying to chip away at it since at least the 1980s.
In Strieff, a Salt Lake City police officer investigating possible drug activity at a residence stopped Strieff without "reasonable cause" after he exited the home. During his encounter with Strieff, the police officer found that he was wanted on a traffic warrant, arrested him, then searched him subsequent to arrest. The police officer found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, then charged him with drug and paraphernalia possession.
Strieff argued to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was derived from an unlawful investigatory stop. He lost at the trial and appeals court levels, but the Utah Supreme Court overturned his conviction, holding that an exception to the exclusionary rule known as the "attenuation doctrine" did not apply. The US Supreme Court disagreed.
The attenuation doctrine holds that unlawfully obtained evidence may be used even if "the fruit of the search is tainted by the initial, unlawful detention…if the taint is dissipated by an intervening circumstance," as the Utah Supreme Court described it. In other words, if police acting in good faith violate the law and don't do it flagrantly, they should be able to use any evidence found as a result of that violation in court.
The Supreme Court divided 5-3 on the case, with Chief Justice Roberts joining justices Alito, Breyer, and Kennedy joined Justice Clarence Thomas in his majority opinion. Thomas held that the police misconduct was not bad enough to warrant suppression of the evidence and, besides, police probably aren't going to abuse their powers to do mass searches.
"[The officer's] purpose was not to conduct a suspicionless fishing expedition but was to gather information about activity inside a house whose occupants were legitimately suspected of dealing drugs," Thomas wrote. "Strieff conflates the standard for an illegal stop with the standard for flagrancy, which requires more than the mere absence of proper cause. Second, it is unlikely that the prevalence of outstanding warrants will lead to dragnet searches by police."
The Supreme Court's liberal minority was not nearly as sanguine. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, with Justice Ginsberg concurring, cut right to the heart of the matter:
"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," she wrote in her dissent. "Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: 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. If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant. Because the Fourth Amendment should prohibit, not permit, such misconduct, I dissent."
In the second case, Taylor v. United States, the high court upheld the ability of federal prosecutors to use federal law to prosecute people who rob drug dealers, even if the dealers are dealing only in locally-grown marijuana with no evidence of interstate sales. That 7-1 decision is in just the latest in a long line of cases upholding the ability of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution's "commerce clause" and to protect it from robbery or extortion under the 1951 Hobbs Act.
It was the "commerce clause" line of cases that led to the 2005 Gonzales v. Raich decision in which the Supreme Court upheld the ability of the federal government to move against marijuana cultivation and sales even in states where it is legal. In that case, the high court ruled that California medical marijuana patient Angel Raich's cultivation of marijuana plants at her home in California for her use in California implicated interstate commerce and was therefore liable to federal jurisdiction.
In Taylor, Taylor was part of a Virginia gang known as the "Southwest Goonz" who targeted and robbed marijuana growers and dealers. He was charged under the Hobbs Act with two counts of "affecting commerce or attempting to do so through robbery." In his first trial, which resulted in a hung jury, Taylor offered evidence that the dealers targeted only trafficked in locally-grown marijuana. In his second trial, prosecutors convinced the court to exclude that evidence, and Taylor was convicted on both counts. The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that conviction, "holding that, given the aggregate effect of drug dealing on interstate commerce, the Government needed only to prove that Taylor robbed or attempted to rob a drug dealer of drugs or drug proceeds to satisfy the commerce element."
In an opinion authored by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court agreed.
"[T]he Government met its burden by introducing evidence that Taylor’s gang intentionally targeted drug dealers to obtain drugs and drug proceeds," he wrote. "That evidence included information that the gang members targeted the victims because of their drug dealing activities, as well as explicit statements made during the course of the robberies that revealed their belief that drugs and money were present. Such proof is sufficient to meet the Hobbs Act’s commerce element."
Only Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that the whole line of "commerce clause" cases granted too much power to the federal government.
"The Hobbs Act makes it a federal crime to commit a robbery that 'affects' 'commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction," Thomas wrote. "Under the Court’s decision today, the Government can obtain a Hobbs Act conviction without proving that the defendant’s robbery in fact affected interstate commerce— or any commerce. The Court’s holding creates serious constitutional problems and extends our already expansive, flawed commerce-power precedents. I would construe the Hobbs Act in accordance with constitutional limits and hold that the Act punishes a robbery only when the Government proves that the robbery itself affected interstate commerce."
Two cases, two distinct lines of legal precedent, one outcome: Drug cases continue to provide a basis for the expansion of state law enforcement power.