US Supreme Court - Evidence allowed after bad stop - thoughts?

In Utah vs Streiff the USSC allowed evidence seized after an unlawful stop to be used against the defendant. Basically, an officer stopped Steiff without having the required reasonable suspicion to do so. During the course of the stop the officer obtained Steiff’s identification and found that he a had an arrest warrant for a minor violation. He arrested Steiff and, in a search incident to arrest, found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

Normally, evidence seized during an unlawful search is suppressed. Additionally, any fruits of unlawful actions by the police are also tossed. In this case it was argued that, even though there was a warrant and a search incident to an arrest might be ok, the whole thing was tainted by the bad stop. The idea is that the exclusion of evidence is a deterrent to bad acts.

NPR just covered this briefly but the average person would take from their coverage that now police can stop and search anyone and any evidence seized will stay in. This will happen more to people of color because so many such people have minor warrants out for them and the police, knowing this, will stop people and demand ID just hoping for a warrant arrest and the accompanying “free search”. The guest made a point of noting that the warrant was for a minor violation and not a serious crime. It wasn’t clear to me what that had to do with anything. A warrant is a warrant. The underlying offense is of no consequence.

Justice Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent. I can’t say I disagree with her about throwing out the evidence but if the cop learns that there is a warrant during an unlawful stop he is obligated to make the arrest and search the person. The arrest itself can’t be suppressed and the person still goes to jail until the original warrant is cleared up.

I also don’t see how this decision will lead to an increase in unlawful stops. If the police really want to target a segment of the population they can (and do) make “stop & check ID” stops without sufficient legal cause. Having evidence thrown out would be an annoyance but the real goal is to simply make the arrest. The court won’t order someone arrested on an existing warrant released because the stop was bad.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condone such practices. I just don’t think this case will make them any more common than they already are. The remedy for victims these tactics would to sue for violations of civil rights or to make enough noise that someone (FBI?) would look into the allegations. The increased use of body cams should also cut down on unlawful stops.

BTW, It also helps if you don’t have warrants out for your arrest. If Steiff didn’t, he would most likely walked away from that encounter. The fact that so many people seem to have them doesn’t make it OK. Until the criminal justice system is completely overhauled, its a good idea to go to court and pay your fines when your supposed to. The local courts where I live will go to great lengths to accommodate people who have trouble paying fines by way of very reasonable payment plans. I can’t speak for what goes on in big cities.

I did some superficial Googling.

Cite. Obviously it is very much a judgment call, but AFAICT the reason that there was no reasonable suspicion justifying the stop was that the arresting officer didn’t see Streiff go into the drug house, and thus did not know that he had only been there a brief time, thus giving rise to a suspicion that he was there to do a drug deal, as indeed he apparently was.

I agree with this.


If police and prosecutors can charge more people with (drug) crimes from illegal stops, then they have more incentive to make illegal stops. I’m not sure how that can really be denied as long as you assume that police want to make more cases.

The courts do not operate as a realistic remedy for cases of illegal stops outside the context of systemic claims of racially discriminatory stops. Generally speaking, you cannot bring a civil rights case in circumstances like Strieff because of the very broad application of a case called Heck v. Humphrey, which prevents a plaintiff from bringing any civil claims if they would call into question, even indirectly, any criminal consequences. Even when Heck doesn’t apply, it’s virtually impossible to get a lawyer unless you have a lot of money or huge damages. (And, more often than not, if there are damages then there was also a conviction–either legitimately or on trumped-up resisting arrest charges.) And, to top it off, it is very rare to win a case against the police if your client has done anything wrong in connection with the suit–so having a valid warrant or being caught with drugs would be deal-breakers.

Unlikely, IMO. Whether a stop is valid or not depends in most cases on how the officer characterizes stop and what was going on in the officer’s mind (which happens in some places at the time of the stop, but in many other places doesn’t happen until the stop is challenged). Veteran cops know when and where to exaggerate or use conclusory legal jargon to protect a stop from criticism, and that content is usually not visual content that could be easily checked against body camera footage.

I think the more likely consequence of body cameras on stop is that it will be like dash cams or cameras in prisons–a marginal benefit that is occasionally helpful but not a game-changer. Cameras are often turned off, or pointing in the wrong direction, or mysteriously lost. It’s possible to craft camera policies that prevent some of that, but that would require real accountability, and many departments are incapable of that even when the top officials desire it.

I think this misses the context that animates the dissents.

In many parts of the country, a given black neighborhood with a crime rate equivalent to a white neighborhood is likely to have many more low-level arrests that lead to warrants (for things like loitering). Simultaneously, the average black household has 7% of the wealth of an average white household. That immense wealth gap also leads to a higher prevalence of poverty-related crimes, like driving on a suspended license for unpaid fees. As you say, some jurisdictions make it relatively easy to set up payment plans. But lots of places, like Ferguson, get too much of their revenue from fines to do it that way.

When you put it all together, in a lot of places and for a lot of people, being born black and behaving like an average white person means getting yourself tickets you cannot afford to pay. You can reduce your chance of being sucked into the criminal justice system in these neighborhoods by being a perfect citizen. But you cannot eliminate it altogether, and it’s sort of missing the point to put the burden on the people being treated unfairly.

Here’s what I’m wondering: from what I saw, the majority opinion put a lot of stock in their determination that the stop wasn’t “flagrantly unlawful”. What happens when other defendants argue that theirs were “flagrant”? How many similar cases will the court have to hear to define that?

Flagrancy was already part of the test, IIRC.

What was bullshit here as to flagrancy was the notion that this officer merely made a “good faith mistake” by failing to “ask Strieff whether he would speak with him, instead of demanding that Strieff do so.”

In reality, it is a common policing tactic to blur the line between a consensual encounter and a stop so that the suspect feels obligated to answer the questions. Whether or not this officer engaged in that tactic or merely made a good faith error should not just have been assumed by the Court.

Well, this calls for a clear and concise summary of what obligations someone in the U.S. has toward a police officer, and an effort to educate the public of same:

  1. If you are a pedestrian who is approached by a police officer, are you required to present identification or answer any questions?

  2. If you are a motorist who is pulled over, same question.

It’s my limited understanding that in case (2), you can be required to produce necessary documents showing that you are license to operate a motor vehicle, and the the vehicle has a current registration and insurance policy. Beyond that, your obligations in (2) and (1) can vary a bit by state.

If I get pulled over while visiting the U.S., I plan to be as minimally cooperative as the law will allow. It will take a conscious effort, I realize, to not respond to the “do you know why I pulled you over?” question in a manner other than “I do not” followed by “am I free to go?” at first opportunity.

I like the cut of your jib, son! Best of luck with this strategy. I would, however, recommend you avoid Nebraska. And all states North, East, South and West of it.

Enjoy the United States! :wink:

I’m white. Barring a blatant traffic violation, I think my odds of getting pulled over are pretty slim.

I’ll be sure not to carry large amounts of cash, though, just in case. That civil forfeiture bullshit is concerning.

I think there will always be a little grey in matters such as these. Technically, I disagree with the Court’s decision, but I don’t really see this as something that’s going to encourage illegal stops. The Court did not rule that any and all evidence produced by virtue of an improper detention / search / seizure is permissible. It seems to be arguing that it is not necessarily impermissible, either. The circumstances dictate the admissibility of the evidence. The officers had a legitimate reason to place the property and the people who visit the premises under surveillance. They had a legitimate reason to assume that the individual could be of value to a criminal investigation. I suppose the greatest controversy is whether or not their conduct led the suspect to feel compelled to cooperate with law enforcement when in fact he was not required to do so, which seems to be consistent with a gradual weakening of the Miranda doctrine.

Physical ID no. Identify who you are no, unless the officer has reasonable suspicion that you are involved in criminal activity, in which case yes, unless identifying who you are would be an incriminating statement, in which case no.

Provide ID yes, if you are stopped at a legal checkpoint or if the officer had reasonable suspicion you were involved in a violation of the law. Answer questions no.

Here’s some interesting data on race and fines (and therefore race and warrants)

The author’s upshot:

This is a good article, but I am suspicious of the conclusions. My first thought was whether or not there was a discussion of the behaviors that lead to the fines. The article notes the definition of fines as:

But then the article dismisses the idea that underlying behaviors and not disparity in treatment base don race may be the cause:

It’s characterized as “unlikely”. Consider the example of marijuana possession arrests - there are a host of reasons that could explain this beyond race but it’s taken at face value that the reason for the disparity in arrest rates is because of race.

I don’t doubt that there is unconcious or other bias going on, I just don’t think it’s as simple as the author of that piece makes it out to be.

The author may be familiar with the extensive literature on the subject and is just eliding it to present the novel information. But you’re right that it is very difficult to disentangle policing choices from underlying rates of crime, since our only measure of crime for many crimes comes from arrest data.

Marijuana arrests are probably the most studied example. We have fairly good data that marijuana usage is similar between black and white cohorts. And, even controlling for where drug sales occur (i.e., counting the number of black and white open-air dealers on corners, etc.), it seems that there are more arrests of black people. Now, the most plausible explanation for this is that black neighborhoods are policed more heavily–and they are policed more heavily, at least in part, because they have higher rates of serious crimes. And, as long as you have police there, why not have them make low-level arrests? Especially if you believe in broken windows policing?

But this really only moves the inquiry a few steps back. It raises the question of whether broken windows policing–for which the evidence is decidedly dubious–is itself a reflection of institutional racism. It also raises the question of why there are disproportionate black murders in the first place. The most plausible explanation for that is a combination of factors, including both poverty and under-policing (paradoxically, murder investigations are given less resources in black neighborhoods even while those same neighborhoods are over-policed for other crimes that are less resource-intensive). And, of course, that just raises more question: why is there so much disproportionate black poverty and why are the police given fewer resources to solve black murders?

If you spend enough time with these questions, it’s hard not to come back to racism–institutional and personal, past and present–as a huge contributing factor. But I acknowledge that it’s devilishly complicated.