With the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court is down to just 8 Justices. This could make it difficult for the Court to deliver precedential rulings on important topics, as many Supreme Court Rulings are decided by a single vote. With an even number of Justices, 4-4 ties are now likely.
Earlier this week, the Court began hearing oral arguments in a case that has important criminal defense implications. Specifically, it could either strengthen or weaken our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure by law enforcement.
In 2006, a police officer in Utah went to stake out a house based on an anonymous tip that drug activity was likely being conducted there. Due to people frequently entering and leaving the house, the officer suspected that it was connected to drug deals. He decided to follow one person who left the house on foot to walk to a nearby convenience store.
He stopped the man, asked for his ID, and ran a background check. The man had a “small traffic warrant” outstanding, and this gave the officer an excuse to arrest him and to conduct a search. The search revealed that the man was carrying methamphetamine.
When evidence is obtained illegally, it cannot be used against the defendant in court. The Utah Supreme Court decided that the drug evidence should be suppressed because it was illegal for the officer to stop the man in the first place. The officer did not have reasonable and individual suspicion that the man had committed a crime – the existence of an outstanding warrant was not discovered until after the man was stopped.
Attorneys representing the state have said that the stop should be considered legal because the officer made a good-faith, reasonable mistake. But confusion about the law is never an acceptable defense by civilians. So why should police officers be given a pass?
Moreover, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted, ruling in favor of the state in this case could set a dangerous precedent by giving law enforcement more latitude than is reasonable. She asked: “What stops us from becoming a police state and just having the police stand on the corner down here and stop every person, ask them for identification, put it through, and if a warrant comes up, searching them?”
Depending on how the court rules, this case could have significant implications for defendants in criminal cases across the nation, including here in Minnesota and North Dakota.