Utah v. Strieff: SCOTUS Fuels a Dangerous Fire

by Thomas L. Knapp…….

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.


Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) 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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2 thoughts on “Utah v. Strieff: SCOTUS Fuels a Dangerous Fire

  1. Great article!
    I think that the endangerment of the responsible law enforcers is seriously increased by the action of the “bad apples” that abuse their authority for the power trip.

    I think the police “code of silence” is a dangerous thing for them and us. They must clean their ranks of power abusers for their own safety and for the safety of their family, friends, and others.

    Quick side trip article: http://www.abuseofpower.info/Culture_Brotherhood.htm

    Russo, Kennedy, and now Knapp warned us, but how many pay attention?

  2. I might agree with this article, in terms of the specific case involved. But, that would deny the recognition of the court’s jurisdiction here…and the obvious evidence of a crime, regardless of how it was acquired.

    In the broad view, it should be recognized that such a case is an exception and not the rule: Many thousands of similar cases are properly pursued without exception.

    Would y’all feel the same way if Detective Fackrell had made the same mistake/error in judgement as to probable cause…only to subsequently discover that the defendant Strieff was wanted on a felony murder warrant? Or…that a “warrantless search” uncovered evidence of a felony or two? Perhaps burglar tools and/or the goodies? Blood…a recently-fired firearm? A body?

    It should also be noted that in Florida…a properly-identified law enforcement officer is empowered to demand authentic identification.

    Y’all gotta look at the big picture. Are there rogues within the cop structure? Sure! Just as many as exist in the populace at large. Cops are people too…


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