03 Aug The 4th Amendment & Civil Rights
The movement #Black Lives Matter is garnering attention throughout the world. Regardless of your opinion on its validity, the movement highlights an important debate in criminal law. It’s an area that I feel strongly about: the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable stops, searches and seizures.
Let’s get a little background information first. Currently drug cases account for roughly 75% of all crimes. A great deal of crimes are “caught” subsequent to a search of a vehicle, person, or house. A police officer finds the drugs and the person is charged with possession or trafficking.
Moving on, statistically there is a greater proportion of African Americans in jail than Caucasians. Closer analysis reveals that the proportional difference is not cleanly correlated to the proportion of crime committed. In other words, they aren’t necessarily committing that many more crimes. Instead, many civil rights attorneys have argued that their greater incerceration rate is because of the greater chance that an African American will be pulled over in a vehicle and subject to a search by police.
There are really (2) issues here: a pretextual stop, and the subsequent search. In order for a police officer to stop a person- either walking or in a vehicle- he or just must have some type of specific suspicion that a crime is involved. Gender, race, and clothing are not enough. It must be concrete and specific. When a stop is made “pretextually”, that is because someone looks suspicious to the police officer, then he or she can challenge it based upon the violation of his or her Fourth Amendment rights. Under the fruits of the poisonous tree doctrine, any evidence gained as a result of that faulty stop is suppressed, i.e. kept out of evidence at trial.
In addition to the pretext, the police officer has to have specific information and suspicions to justify a warrantless search. There are exceptions, such as when you are already under arrest or when you consent, but for the most part the standard is similar to the pretextual stop. The effect is also the same. If the officer has violated your Fourth Amendment rights, the evidence may be inadmissible.
To the general public, kicking evidence out of Court because of a bad search and seizure may seem like a “technicality”. However, to Attorneys, this is a vital protection of a citizen’s rights. We shouldn’t forget that there are some countries in this world where law enforcement has carte blanche rights to overpower citizens. And there are no grievance procedures. The effect is a fearful, stunted culture.
We are privileged in America. We have a wonderful checks and balances embedded in our system. Police officers have a very hard job to do. They won’t always do it perfectly. Some have bad days. Some have bad training. Luckily, as a citizen, you always have recourse. The system tries its best to turn a wrong into a right, even if that means the occasional case is dismissed.