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Utah v. Strife: the Supreme Court’s Latest Dangerous Expansion of Police Powers

The US Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Utah v. Strieff, issued on June 20, is the latest in a long line of rulings expanding the powers of police at the expense of everyone else. Such expansions represent a clear and present danger to the public … and when resistance to the abuses they encourage explodes into open violence, as it surely will sooner or later, to police themselves

Edward Strieff was detained in what the state of Utah’s attorneys openly admit was an illegal stop — a stop completely absent probable cause to believe that he had committed a crime — by Salt Lake City detective Douglas Fackrell. But the illegal stop and an illegal demand for identification enabled Fackrell to discover an outstanding traffic warrant. That discovery, the court holds, was an “attenuating” event which made Fackrell’s subsequent search of Strieff (and use of the drugs discovered on Strieff’s person in that search as evidence against him) perfectly legal.

In the opening to her dissent,  Justice Sonia Sotomayor explains the ruling’s essential evil. “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,” writes Sotomayor. “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.”

My late friend Aaron Russo (you may remember him as the award-winning producer of such motion pictures as “The Rose” and “Trading Places”) defined a police state in terms of fear. You know you’re living in a police state, Aaron said, if merely noticing a patrol car behind you in traffic makes you nervous.

I suspect the street sign marking that point is likewise in the rearview mirror for most of us. “No-knock” raids, “Terry stop” aka “stop and frisk” policies, and numerous violent police assaults and even murders caught on camera but often committed with impunity, make those fears eminently reasonable. This ruling can only add to the power of those fears and to the number of Americans living daily with them.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible,” said president John F. Kennedy, “will make violent revolution inevitable.” With its ruling in Utah v. Strieff, the US Supreme Court continues a long and sorry record of answering to Kennedy’s description.

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Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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