Tag Archives: Fourth Amendment

Utah v. Strieff

The Supreme Court held today in Utah v. Strieff that if you stop someone illegally, then run a search on their drivers license and find they have unpaid traffic tickets, giving cause for arrest, and you then arrest them, search them, and find drugs, the drugs are admissible evidence despite arising by means of an illegal stop.  I read through the decision, following the cites and deciding whether I believed the argument.  I don’t.  But I should have saved my time and read Sotomayor’s dissent, which makes the case very clearly and in my view persuasively.

What everybody agrees on:

  • Evidence need not be excluded just because it would not have been obtained but for an illegal stop.  If the officer had stopped Strieff without reasonable cause, and in the course of their conversation, someone wandered by, pointed at Strieff, and said “that’s the guy who robbed me yesterday!” it would be OK to use the accusation as evidence even though it wouldn’t have happened had Strieff not been detained.  “But for” is necessary for exclusion, but not sufficient.
  • The criterion is, rather, supposed to be “whether, granting establishment of the primary illegality, the evidence to which instant objection is made has been come at by exploitation of that illegality or instead by means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged of the primary taint.”

The majority’s theory is that the information obtained by the offer about the arrest warrant was a “means sufficiently distinguishable.”  Sotomayor disagrees, and so do I.  Running Strieff’s name through the database wasn’t a separate interaction that just happened, by chance, to take place in the spacio-temporal neighborhood of the illegal stop:  it was an attempt to execute the purpose of the illegal stop, and has to be seen as a continuation of that stop.

What’s especially annoying is the majority’s use of cites that don’t support its case.  They say the facts in Segura v. United States are “similar” to those in Strieff.  They are not.  In fact (as the majority concedes) the decision to admit the evidence in Segura was reached under a totally different theory, because in that case, unlike this one, the evidence used at trial would have been obtained whether or not the illegal search had taken place; i.e. even the weaker “but for” standard wasn’t met.  Then they say the request for the warrant in the course of the illegal stop was a “negligibly burdensome precaution for officer safety,” citing Rodriguez v. United States.  In that case, it was remarked that it was legitimate, for the cause of traffic safety, to check for outstanding traffic warrants against a driver stopped for a traffic violation.  So far so good.  But the decision in that case goes on to say that making the driver submit to a dog sniff of his car is not permissible.  “Lacking the same close connection to roadway safety as the ordinary inquiries, a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission.”

The majority’s theory is that the officer checked Strieff for outstanding warrants because public safety required it.  Sotomayor’s theory is that the officer checked Strieff for outstanding warrants because he had no cause to search Strieff, and wanted some.  Which do you find more plausible?

What’s interesting is that the case that best supports the majority’s theory is one they don’t even directly cite: Johnson v. Louisiana.  In that case, Johnson was arrested without a warrant for a robbery, brought to the courthouse, and put in a lineup, where he was identified by a witness as perpetrator of a different robbery.  The court held that Johnson’s ID in the lineup was admissible even though it resulted from an illegal arrest, because the lineup was ordered separately by the judge after Johnson had been brought in:  this “intervening action” was held to be sufficient separation between the illegal arrest and the evidence obtained.  What I can’t tell from the decision is:  was it just by chance that the victim of the other robbery happened to be present at the lineup for the original robbery?  Or was it common practice to arrest people on a hunch and then put them in a bunch of different lineups to see if anyone IDed them as the perpetrator of a crime?  If it’s the former, I can sort of understand the Court’s reasoning.  If the latter, no way.

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Is a search a search?

(Continued from yesterday’s post.)

Scalia understood, when he needed to, that words changed their meaning, and stretched to accommodate cases that didn’t exist for the founders.  What, in the sense of the Fourth Amendment, counts as a “search”?  Scalia took up this lexical question in Kyllo vs. U.S, writing that infrared scanning of a house to detect excess heat (generated, the police correctly inferred, by a marijuana greenhouse within) did indeed constitute a search.  This is not the kind of search the Framers contemplated.  Nonetheless, says Scalia:

When the Fourth Amendment was adopted, as now, to “search” meant “[t]o look over or through for the purpose of finding something; to explore; to examine by inspection; as, to search the house for a book; to search the wood for a thief.” N. Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language 66 (1828) (reprint 6th ed. 1989)

How to read this?  The written definition can be read to include viewing a house from the outside, and indeed, Scalia brings it up in this context:

One might think that the new validating rationale would be that examining the portion of a house that is in plain public view, while it is a “search”1 despite the absence of trespass, is not an “unreasonable” one under the Fourth Amendment.

But visual inspection of a house has not been classified as search by the Court — “perhaps,” Scalia says, “in order to preserve somewhat more intact our doctrine that warrantless searches are presumptively unconstitutional.”

In fact, it’s pretty clear from other Scalia opinions that he chooses a meaning for the word “search” which is simultaneously more restrictive than the dictionary definition —  it excludes visual inspection of a house — and more inclusive than the contemporary plain-language meaning.  To push a stereo away from the wall and look at its serial number, as in Arizona v. Hicks, is not to “search” the stereo; it’s not even clear whether, in standard English, a stereo can be searched, unless by pulling open the casing and digging through its insides.  But in Scalia’s majority opinion there, the moving of the stereo is what creates the search:

A truly cursory inspection – one that involves merely looking at what is already exposed to view, without disturbing it – is not a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes, and therefore does not even require reasonable suspicion… [t]aking action, unrelated to the objectives of the authorized intrusion, which exposed to view concealed portions of the apartment or its contents, did produce a new invasion of respondent’s privacy unjustified by the exigent circumstance that validated the entry. This is why, contrary to JUSTICE POWELL’S suggestion, post, at 333, the “distinction between `looking’ at a suspicious object in plain view and `moving’ it even a few inches” is much more than trivial for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. It matters not that the search uncovered nothing of any great personal value to respondent – serial numbers rather than (what might conceivably have been hidden behind or under the equipment) letters or photographs. A search is a search, even if it happens to disclose nothing but the bottom of a turntable.”

So a “search,” for Scalia, requires observation of something that might reasonably be expected to be private, but doesn’t require looking inside of the thing searched.  I think that’s a pretty good definition; but it’s not what’s in the dictionary, it’s not the way we use the word in plain Enlglish, and Scalia makes no claim that it’s what was in the Framers’ minds.  It’s a definition you choose in order to achieve a goal, the goal of a workable evidential rule that suits our — or someone’s — sense of justice.

And that’s why it grates when Scalia says “[a] search is a search.”  So matter-of-fact, so direct; but so utterly opposite to what’s actually happening!  He should have said “A search is what we define a search to be.”

In light of Scalia’s take on statistical sampling, his rejection of Powell’s dissent is interesting:

As for the dissent’s extraordinary assertion that anything learned through “an inference” cannot be a search, see post, at 4-5, that would validate even the “through-the-wall” technologies that the dissent purports to disapprove. Surely the dissent does not believe that the through-the-wall radar or ultrasound technology produces an 8-by-10 Kodak glossy that needs no analysis (i.e., the making of inferences)

To measure radiation emanating from the outside of a house, and to infer by technological means something about the contents of the interior that can’t be directly observed:  this, for Scalia, is a search.  To count all the inhabitants of a city you can find, and to infer by technological means something about the people who couldn’t be directly observed:  that, Scalia says, isn’t counting.  In Kyllo, Scalia is happy to speculate about future technologies that will make his view more obviously correct, as soon as they exist (“The ability to “see” through walls and other opaque barriers is a clear, and scientifically feasible, goal of law enforcement research and development.”)  In Commerce, his vision of technological progress in statistics is decidedly more pessimistic.  Why?

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