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U.S. Supreme Court broadens police search and seizure authority

Iowa residents facing drug possession or trafficking charges can often argue successfully that the police search that turned up the drugs violated their constitutional rights. If the judge agrees that the search was illegal, the evidence found in the search can be ruled inadmissible at trial. Since this evidence is usually central to the prosecution's case, the end result is often a dismissal of the charges.

A search conducted in connection with an unconstitutional police stop will ordinarily be illegal. But recently the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in some situations, evidence seized in such a search can still be used in court.

The case arose out of the arrest of a Utah man for possession of methamphetamine. A detective stopped the suspect even though he had no legal basis to do so. It was only after he stopped the suspect that the detective learned he had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic offense. He arrested the suspect, searched him and found the methamphetamine. The prosecution later admitted in court that there was no constitutional basis for the stop.

A majority of the court ruled that the drug evidence could be used at trial because the discovery of the outstanding warrant meant the search was no longer a direct result of the unlawful stop. Justice Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent, in which she stated that police were now free to stop anyone on the street, even if they were doing nothing wrong, check their identification against a police database, and then search them if they discovered an outstanding warrant for a parking ticket. She also argued that people of color would be disproportionately affected by the court's decision.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, is a critical restraint on the abuse of authority by law enforcement personnel. The Court's decision weakens that restraint.

Source: NBC News, "Sotomayor Issues Scathing Dissent in Fourth Amendment Case," Irin Carmon, June 20, 2016

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