Posted on 08/24/2022
In January 2016, I wrote about the canary in the coal mine as it relates to global warming. For this newsletter, I write about who the canary in the coal mine is as it relates to a recent U.S. Supreme Court Decision. A canary in a coal mine is an advanced warning of some danger. The metaphor originates from the times when miners used to carry caged canaries while at work; if there was any methane or carbon monoxide in the mine, the canary would die before the levels of the gas reached those hazardous to humans.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. However, the Fourth Amendment is not a guarantee against all searches and seizures, but only those that are deemed reasonable under the law. Over the past four decades, the Supreme Court has severely eroded our Fourth Amendment protections (largely through using the war on drugs) and might have recently put the death knell to whatever Fourth Amendment protections we had left in the Court’s recent decision this past month in Utah v. Strieff.
In Utah v. Strieff, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the Constitution’s protections against unlawful police stops, ruling that evidence found during those interactions could be used in court if the officers also found an outstanding arrest warrant along the way. This case started when the police in Salt Lake City got an anonymous tip of drug activity at a house. An officer monitoring the house became suspicious at the number of people he saw entering and leaving. When one of those people, Edward Strieff, left to walk to a nearby 7-11 convenience store, the officer stopped him and asked for his identification. A routine check revealed that Mr. Strieff had an outstanding “small traffic warrant.” The officer arrested him based on that earlier warrant, searched him and found drugs in his pockets.
The State of Utah agreed that the initial stop was illegal because it was not based on reasonable, individual suspicion that Mr. Strieff was doing anything wrong. Instead, the state argued that the discovery of the valid warrant – after the illegal stop – got around the Fourth Amendment violation.
The Utah Supreme Court rightly rejected this argument, but that decision was overturned in a majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. The officer’s lack of any specific suspicion of Mr. Strieff, Justice Thomas wrote for the majority, was a result of “good-faith mistakes.” The illegal stop was, at worst, “an isolated instance of negligence.”
Generally speaking, evidence found during unlawful searches is supposed to be tossed out of court under the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule. The rule’s rationale is fairly straightforward: If cops and prosecutors can still benefit from unlawful searches, what motivation would there be to not perform them?
In a powerful dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote about the implications this case has: “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.”
In a final and more personal statement, Justice Sotomayor drew a link between the court’s extreme deference to law enforcement officials and the racial inequity that pervades America’s criminal justice system. While Mr. Strieff is white, she said, “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.” The central, disturbing message of Monday’s ruling, she added, is that whether you are white or black, “your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights,” and in that way, “unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives.”
“Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the ‘civil death’ of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check,” she noted, citing academic works by criminal-justice scholars Gabriel Chin and James Jacobs.
“We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated.’ They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere,” she wrote.