The Fourth Amendment: What the Newest Supreme Court Decision Means for Your Rights

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Or at least, it does in theory.  In theory, evidence seized as the result of an unlawful search or seizure cannot be used as evidence in the case against the defendant. The inability to use evidence gathered as the result of an unconstitutional search or seizure is a remedy designed to protect the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens to deter law enforcement from violating the constitution. However, court decisions over the past few decades have created so many exceptions to the constitutional right guaranteed by this amendment that it has made the guarantees effectively meaningless in many real life situations.
Last Monday, the Supreme Court issued a decision that once again eroded the protections offered by the Fourth Amendment.  The case, Utah v. Strieff, involved an anonymous tip to the Salt Lake City Police about suspected drug activity at a house. An officer watching the home became suspicious of all the people leaving and entering the residence. The Fourth Amendment Unreasonable Searches By PoliceWhen one individual left the home to walk to a convenient store nearby, the officer stop him and asked for his driver’s license. The officer performed a routine check and discovered the man had an outstanding traffic warrant. The man was arrested and a search revealed a small amount of drugs in his pocket.

The Fourth Amendment Unreasonable Searches By Police

The State of Utah admitted that the initial stop of the man was illegal according to the tenants of the Fourth Amendment, because the stop was not based on a reasonable, individual suspicion that the man was doing anything wrong. They argued that the discovery of the outstanding warrant after the illegal stop got around the violation, and therefore, the evidence was still admissible. The Supreme Court disagreed with the State’s logic but reached the same conclusion in their decision.  In a 5-3 decision, the Court held that the evidence was admissible, because the officer’s lack of any specific suspicion that the man involved had been involved in drug related activity was the result of a good faith mistake. The illegal stop was “an isolated instance of negligence.”

A Police Officer Can Stop You Without Having Any Reason To Suspect You Committed A Crime

In practice, the Supreme Court’s decision means that a police officer can stop you without having any reason to suspect you committed a crime, demand identification and check it for warrants. Any evidence they find during the stop can be used against you in court even though the stop was unconstitutional. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote about the consequences of the Court’s latest ruling in a scathing dissent. She said that the message sent by the Court’s ruling is that “your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights.”The ruling gives police an extra incentive to stop individuals for any reason knowing, due to the staggering number of outstanding warrants, that the odds are high they will be able to make an arrest and conduct a search.

It is crucial criminal defense attorneys are aware of the ever evolving law regarding the Fourth Amendment to ensure their clients’ rights are protected throughout their case. Attorneys must be zealous advocates when those rights have been infringed upon.


If you need a lawyer for criminal defense in Columbus, and Central Ohio or to defend a Federal case, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.



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