New Ruling on Unlawful Searches


courtThe United States Supreme Court made a decision yesterday that could weaken the protections that individuals have. Normally in a criminal defense case, evidence found during an unlawful police search is inadmissible during the trial proceedings. This is something that is protected under the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that evidence found during what would be considered an unlawful search can be used in a trial if the officers involved found an outstanding arrest warrant along the way.

Justice Clarence Thomas — on behalf of the 5-3 majority in Utah v. Strieff — said that the officer’s errors in judgement does not warrant a violation of Strieff’s Fourth Amendment rights. The case began with what was said to be an unlawful search, in which a narcotics detective witnessed several people enter and leave a local home for short periods of time after receiving an anonymous tip and conducting surveillance.

The detective assessed that the home was a location of drug activity based on his own experience. It was reported that the detective did not note when Strieff entered the home so he could not determine if the visit was short enough to warrant suspicions. Still, the detective followed Strieff to a local 7-11 where he was questioned about his visit. During this time, the detective relayed Strieff’s personal information and it was discovered that there was a traffic warrant out for Strieff. He was placed under arrest and the detective searched him, finding methamphetamine and charging him for unlawful possession.

Normally, this kind of evidence — that which is found during an unlawful search — should be inadmissible in court. The Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule believes that if law enforcement could benefit from unlawful searches, there would be nothing to stop them from performing them during each arrest.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, stated the following:

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. 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.

Justice Sotomayor continued:

[The ruling] implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.

This brings up an interesting topic as to what happens if someone is arrested and convicted based on evidence discovered during an unlawful search. This was a defense that is supposed to be protected by the Constitution and provide defendants a way to assert their rights in court. If it becomes something that others are overlooking and allowing the evidence to be used in trial, it puts the defendant at risk of an unfavorable outcome. It’s important to know where the courts stand on these issues and make sure everybody’s Fourth Amendment rights are being protected.

At Koffel Brininger Nesbitt, our Columbus criminal defense lawyers have handled numerous cases in which we have used unlawful searches and inadmissible evidence as part of our defense. We are dedicated to making sure our clients have a voice in court and that their rights are not violated. In this type of case, you need serious representation from skilled legal counsel. If you’ve been arrested after an unlawful search, we invite you to contact our firm and learn more about your legal rights and options. We’re here to defend you every step of the way.