June is a great month for many reasons, least of which is because it marks the time of year when the Supreme Court issues decisions on the cases they heard earlier in the year. While cases like Murr v. Wisconsin and Gill v. Whitford made waves this past month, headlines like the disappointing Philando Castile verdict, and the “Back the Blue Act” have the chance to further enhance police power. The expansion of the “police state” is nothing new, and reminds me of an interesting Supreme Court case from last June; Utah v. Strieff.
In that case, Utah detective Douglas Fackrell suspected that a Salt Lake City residence may be selling drugs, so he decided to monitor the property. One day, Fackrell saw Edward Strieff leaving the residence. Seeing the opportunity he had been waiting for, Fackrell stopped Strieff for questioning. During that questioning, Fackrell discovered that there was an arrest warrant out for Strieff, so he searched him without obtaining a warrant. Upon that search, they found some meth, and arrested him.
Lower courts found that even though the initial questioning was illegal, the evidence discovered during the stop still could be used at trial because it was proof of a crime, the Utah Supreme Court disagreed. The Utah Supreme Court ruled that the evidence found during the stop needed to be suppressed in court since the search of Edward Strieff violated the fourth amendment, therefore any evidence found during the stop should be ruled inadmissible.
The case made its way to the United States Supreme Court, where the justices had to decide if evidence obtained during an illegal search is enough to arrest someone on an outstanding arrest warrant. In a 5-3 decision, SCOTUS sided with law enforcement. In his 5-3 majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas stated that evidence obtained during the violation of your fourth amendment rights should not be excluded if the “costs of its conclusion outweigh the benefits.”
Essentially, what this means is when a valid warrant is discovered after an unconstitutional stop, the connection between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of evidence incident to a lawful arrest based on the warrant is sufficient. The ruling essentially nullifies the fourth amendment.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan both wrote dissenting opinions, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg joining in for parts of both. In Sotomayor’s dissent, she recognizes just how much power law enforcement wields in this country;
“Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more”
It’s incredibly easy to get pulled over for speeding, only to have an ambitious law enforcement official “discover” some minor issue that would result in an arrest. While most law enforcement officials are good men and women, the general public needs to be able to hold the small minority accountable for their actions. With the Strieff ruling, Sotomayor points out, the Supreme Court has given law enforcement a great deal of power;
“This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants — so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.”
“By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time”
“It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”
Sotomayor makes an incredibly valid point, it has become increasingly clear that the “Prison Industrial Complex,” has gained enough power that even though crime has dropped 40% in the last 20 years there are currently over 2.5 million people in jail.
The prison population isn’t just exorbitant, it is incredibly expensive. At a cost of $30,619.85 per federal inmate, per year, it seems a bit irresponsible to lock up nearly 188,000 people, of which nearly 95,000 are serving time for ridiculous drug offenses.
The cost per inmate is much higher in major cities. In New York City, for example, it costs $167,731 to incarcerate one person for a year. With 8.5 million people in NYC, that means each resident of NYC is spending $242.46 a year to lock up residents, and that number is based off of population alone. If you only count taxpayers, that cost per person would be much higher. And while $243/year seems like a small price to pay to lock up rapists and murderers, is that money really worth locking up an 18 year old with an ounce of pot?
Even if you don’t necessarily care about other people, you have to realize that if you’re paying $243 a year to lock someone, what other government programs are recklessly spending money? Maybe you’re spending $20 a year to ensure that kids have the necessary permits to cut their neighbors grass, or $80 a year subsidizing research for a corporation owned by billionaires. At some point in time society needs to realize that the government bleeds taxpayer dollars.
When you combine the overwhelming power of law enforcement, with a large amount of bureaucracy and a crackdown on victim-less crimes, criminal justice reform is necessary to not only wrestle back control of our civil liberties, but to help save our economy as well.