Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Derek Willie
Derek Willie is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.
The fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution is undoubtedly a critical safeguard of personal liberty against governmental overreach. It states that citizens have rights to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Together with the Fifth and Sixth amendments, it plays a crucial role in establishing the exclusionary rule, which bars unconstitutionally obtained evidence from being introduced in court.  Recently, however, the Supreme Court dealt a consequential blow to both the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule in Utah v. Schrieff.
In 2006, Salt Lake City police arrested Edward Strieff for possession of methamphetamine and paraphernalia. What distinguishes Mr. Strieff’s arrest is that the police officer who searched him for the drugs did not have probable cause to conduct the search. Rather, the officer observed Strieff leave a house where an anonymous tip reported drug activity. When Strieff identified himself for the police, they found an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation, performed a search and found the drugs.  Strieff sued, alleging that the officer violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures”; thus, the evidence produced from the search would be inadmissible. 
Fourth amendment transgressions similar to the one alleged by Mr. Strieff are certainly not without precedent. In 1959, the Supreme Court decided Henry v. United States,a case which is relatively obscure case, yet has a profound resemblance to Strieff. The petitioner alleged that federal officials illegally searched his car for cartons of whiskey, which they suspected him of stealing. Instead, the officers discovered radios, which they charged him with stealing. The man sued, asserting that because the radios were confiscated through a warrantless search, they could not be used as evidence. The court ultimately sided with the petitioner, excluding the evidence the police had illegally confiscated. 
Writing for the majority in Henry, Justice William O. Douglas opined that “an arrest is not justified by what the subsequent search discloses. Under our system suspicion is not enough for an officer to lay hands on a citizen. It is better, so the Fourth Amendment teaches, that the guilty sometimes go free than that citizens be subject to easy arrest.”  Though dating from 1959, Douglas’s words are especially prescient in Strieff’s predicament. The police had just as much cause to believe that Mr. Strieff possessed drugs as they did to believe that the petitioner had stolen whiskey. It seems reasonable that Douglas’s logic would prevail in Strieff’s situation, yet the police’s knowledge of Strieff’s warrant technically authorized their search. Thus, the warrant is really all that separates Strieff’s situation from the Henry petitioner’s. It is the legal technicality that justified the officer’s search that enabled him to feed a suspicion largely founded on hearsay.
That the court ruled against Mr. Strieff is particularly concerning for civil liberties advocates, along with communities of color already burdened with invasive police activity. Orin Kerr, a Professor of Law at George Washington University, argues that the Court’s decision could permit officers to act on the most minor suspicions of criminal activity. Even if an officer does not find an outstanding warrant, it is unlikely that any one he/she searches would sue or even complain.  Furthermore, Black and Latino drivers are more likely to be ticketed or searched by police for traffic violations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means that police officers are more likely to search them for warrants, and, additionally, that people of color are more likely to have warrants for the small, nonviolent violations that allow the police to perform these searches.
At a time when tensions between the police and communities of color are at their peak, it seems not only unwise but unfair to empower the police with more authority to search innocent civilians. Is catching a few guilty drug offenders worth violating the constitutional rights of many? Justice Douglas was right.
According to the fourth amendment, it isn’t.
 "Exclusionary Rule." LII / Legal Information Institute. Accessed June 22, 2016. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/exclusionary_rule.
 Winslow, Ben. "U.S. Supreme Court Rules 5-3 in Utah Drug Search Case." Fox13nowcom. 2016. Accessed June 22, 2016. http://fox13now.com/2016/06/20/u-s-supreme-court-rules-5-3-in-utah-drug-search-case/.
 "Fourth Amendment - U.S. Constitution - FindLaw." Findlaw. Accessed June 22, 2016. http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment4.html.
 "FindLaw's United States Supreme Court Case and Opinions." Findlaw. Accessed June 22, 2016. http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/361/98.html
 Kerr, Orin. "Opinion Analysis: The Exclusionary Rule Is Weakened but It Still Lives." SCOTUSblog RSS. 2016. Accessed June 22, 2016. http://www.scotusblog.com/2016/06/opinion-analysis-the-exclusionary-rule-is-weakened-but-it-still-lives/.
 "Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)." Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Accessed June 22, 2016. http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail.
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
Photo Credit: Flickr User 724 Photog