WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday gave police more power to stop people on the streets and question them, even when it is not clear they have done anything wrong.
In a 5-3 ruling, the justices relaxed the so-called exclusionary rule and upheld the use of drug evidence found on a Utah man who was stopped illegally by a police officer in Salt Lake City.
The court, in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, said that because the man had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation, the illegal stop could be ignored.
"In this case, the warrant was valid, it predated (the police officer's) investigation, and it was entirely unconnected with the stop," Thomas wrote for the court.
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The court's three women justices strongly dissented and warned that the ruling will encourage police to randomly stop and question people because they face no penalty for violating their constitutional rights against unreasonable searches. They said racial minorities in major cities will be most affected.
"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," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent.
"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," she wrote. "If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant."
Allowing police to stop people to "fish for evidence" is a serious mistake that will give officers "reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner," Sotomayor wrote.
"We also risk treating members of our community as second-class citizens," she wrote, adding that "the white defendant in this case shows that anyone's dignity can be violated in this manner. But it is not secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny."
Justice Elena Kagan in a separate dissent noted that millions of people have outstanding warrants.
"The state of California has 2.5 million outstanding arrest warrants (a number corresponding to about 9 percent of its adult population)," she said. She and Sotomayor pointed that the Justice Department found that Ferguson, Mo., with a population of 21,000, had 16,000 outstanding warrants on file.
Thomas, rebutting the dissenters, said the case did not involve a "flagrant violation" of the Fourth Amendment. He said he doubted "police will engage in dragnet searches if the exclusionary rule is not applied. We think this outcome is unlikely."
The Supreme Court first adopted the exclusionary rule for federal cases in 1914, but greatly expanded its reach in 1961 by applying the rule to state and local police. The rule generally requires judges to throw out evidence if a police officer or federal agent conducted an unreasonable search, including stopping a pedestrian without reasonable suspicion that the person had committed a crime.
In the last decade, the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts has relaxed the rule in cases in which officers made an innocent mistake or relied on a defective warrant.
The Utah case began when a Salt Lake City officer saw a man walking away from a house where drug dealing was suspected. He stopped Edward Strieff in the parking lot of a nearby convenience store and asked to see his identification.
When Detective Douglas Fackrell relayed the information to a police dispatcher, he was told Strieff had an outstanding warrant for a "traffic violation." Based on that, he arrested Strieff, searched him and found a bag of methamphetamine.
Strieff was charged with unlawful possession of an illegal drug, although the prosecutors conceded the officer had lacked "reasonable suspicion" when he stopped and questioned the man outside the convenience store.
The Utah Supreme Court reversed Strieff's drug conviction on the grounds that the illegal stop required throwing out the evidence against him.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the state's appeal and upheld the conviction Monday in Utah vs. Strieff.
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito agreed with Thomas.