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Scalia Absence Could Immediately Affect Law Enforcement

Scalia Absence Could Immediately Affect Law Enforcement

United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s was often a tie-breaking vote and many times seen as “pro-law enforcement” in his decisions.  On the first day the court is hearing oral arguments without the long time justice, it appeared that a case that could immediately impact how law enforcement stops and searches suspects could be split down the middle.

The court’s liberal and conservative members took opposite sides in the case but that 4-4 deadlock was often broke up by Scalia.  Tie votes will revert back to the lower courts without setting any national precedent.

The case involves a Utah police officer’s detention of a man leaving a house that was under observation for possible drug-dealing. After discovering an outstanding arrest warrant for a minor traffic infraction, the man was searched and found to have illegal drugs.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled that the initial stop was illegal and the discovery of the arrest warrant insufficient to justify the search and arrest, prompting Utah to appeal.

Within minutes, the court’s liberal justices seized on the police officer’s behavior. “What stops us from becoming a police state?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, if police can simply stop people without reasonable suspicion.

Conservative justices saw things differently. Chief Justice John Roberts noted police can search suspects to protect themselves, adding, “Not wanting to get shot’s a pretty good reason.”

The Supreme Court has ruled many times on what evidence can be admitted and what must be suppressed under the exclusionary rule, which restricts evidence that is gathered illegally. The new case, Utah v. Strieff, tests the impact of outstanding arrest warrants on that balancing act.

Justice Anthony Kennedy doubted whether the police officer stopped the suspect in order to search for arrest warrants.

“I thought the purpose of the stop was to find out what was going on in the house,” Kennedy said.

While a pending 4-4 tie in this case would not set national precedence, it does show the importance of the 9th Justice which is pending the President’s nomination and Senate confirmation.

In regards to this case out of Utah, outstanding warrants have been used for detention, arrest and subsequent searches for decades.  This is likely just the first in a string of cases that will dictate police operations for years to come.

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