Supreme Court Expands Police Search Power

The United States Supreme Court has once again defined the limits of the Fourth Amendment when it comes to what officers can and cannot do during a routine traffic stop. The decision, which potentially expands the scope of the police ability to search and seize, could have significant constitutional ramifications.

Man Stopped Illegally

The case involves a home in Utah, which police believed was being used to sell drugs. Police stopped a man who was in his car and had previously left that house to question him. The officer then checked the man’s license, and found there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Based on this, the police searched the car, found drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine, and arrested him.

The man challenged the legality of the arrest. He argued that the police did not have any reasonable suspicion to pull him over. Because of that, there could be no grounds to search the car, and thus, nothing found in his car could be used against him.

Supreme Court Rules on Admissibility

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed (and in fact the prosecution stipulated) that the police stopping the driver was unconstitutional, as there was no reasonable suspicion that the man had done anything wrong or that he was breaking the law when he was stopped. There was agreement that had the illegal stop directly lead to the police finding the contraband that the contraband could not be used as evidence.

But what made this case different is the outstanding warrant for the man’s arrest that was discovered by the police, after the car was stopped but before the car was searched.

The Court reasoned that once the warrant was discovered by the officer, the illegality of the initial search was mitigated. In other words, the discovery of the illegal drugs stemmed from the discovery of the outstanding warrant, making the search legal. That discovery “intervened,” breaking the chain of causation between the stop and the discovery. The Court thus ruled that the evidence could be admitted and used against the defendant.

Justices Express Concerns

Other justices who disagreed with the decision voiced concern that it would now allow police to stop a citizen without any reason or cause whatsoever, then do a background check on-site, and if something was found (such as an outstanding warrant), the stop would be magically transformed into a legal one.

Police could use the discovery of certain information as a pre-text to justify a stop that leads to a search and seizure.

Some justices expressed concern that officers would be encouraged to pull random people over for no reason, just to afford them the opportunity to search for an outstanding warrant, as is done in police states and which would allow them to search a vehicle. In fact, justices even opined that outstanding parking tickets could serve as the pretext to allow an officer to search a vehicle.

You have constitutional rights in the criminal justice system which should be enforced. If you are arrested, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights.