Why Illegally Obtained Evidence Should Not Be Allowed In Court


It's a staple trope of police procedurals: A grizzled cop is on the cusp of breaking bad because the system is just too rigged in favor of the bad guys. Usually, another character will serve as the cop's conscience, begging him or her to stay on the side of legal justice.

Cue the tiny violin in time for the sob story about some rapist or murderer who got off due to a technicality or a liberal judge's light sentence -- only to rape or murder again.

Of course, those shows are fiction. We can only dream of a world in which cops and prosecutors are so morally incorruptible and righteous. A world in which police and prosecutors really shoulder the burden of proof and work passionately to put actual criminals behind bars.

Real life is a lot more complicated. Tensions between the public and the police are at an all-time high, and it's not just because of the steady stream of videos showing cops killing civilians. Thanks to the ubiquity of cameras, defendants can now prove when police are lying in reports and court testimony, and it's frightening to contemplate how often that seems to be the case.

Thanks to record-keeping, we know police in places like Chicago routinely, intentionally break their dashboard cameras because they don't want to be filmed, The Washington Post reported. Thanks to dogged defense lawyers, we know American police steal billions -- that's billions with a B -- from innocent American drivers by abusing civil asset forfeiture laws, according to The New Yorker. Thanks to journalists, we know prosecutors and police in Orange County, California, cheated for years by hiding exculpatory evidence from defense lawyers, routinely lying in court, and inventing witness accounts, the Daily Kos noted.

That doesn't even scratch the surface.

On Feb. 23, the Supreme Court began listening to arguments in Utah v. Strieff, a case about illegal police searches, the New York Times reports. At a time when police enjoy more investigative tools, favorable laws and high-tech toys than ever, the Supreme Court should be limiting police powers, not expanding them.

At issue is an illegal search and arrest in 2006. Attorneys for the police argue that officers made a mistake by searching a man without probable cause, but the man had drugs on him anyway, so it was all just a happy little accident, as painter Bob Ross liked to say. If the guy was guilty anyway, what's the harm in admitting the illegally-obtained evidence at trial?

But if the court allows police to use illegally obtained evidence, police blotters will be filled with happy little accidents, Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out.

“What stops us from becoming a police state and just having the police stand on the corner down here and stop every person, ask them for identification, put it through, and if a warrant comes up, searching them?” Sotomayor asked, according to the Times.

Thanks to the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine, evidence discovered through illegal searches is inadmissible in court. Further, evidence gathered as an indirect result of an illegal search is also inadmissible.

Yet there are exceptions to the doctrine, exceptions unscrupulous cops can invoke with little effort, National Paralegal College notes. Police can simply say the information was corroborated by a confidential informant, and suddenly evidence obtained illegally is admissible again. They can also argue that they would have discovered the evidence eventually, or that they thought their search was legal at the time.

If the system was rigged in favor of the bad guys, the U.S. wouldn't have the largest prison population in the world. There wouldn't be 2.4 million people, many of them convicted of non-violent crimes, festering in state and federal prisons. American taxpayers wouldn't be paying $40 billion a year -- a number that does not include societal costs -- to keep those people behind bars.

The police have infrared and thermal imaging cameras. They have automated license plate readers that can literally scan every car and cross-check their plates for traffic warrants, according to the ACLU. They've been able to repurpose parts of the Patriot Act for use against American citizens. They have access to the most expansive criminal databases in the history of the human race. In cities like New York, detectives can access tens of thousands of CCTV and surveillance cameras, Slate reported. As two overseas wars wind down, police departments across the country are also feasting on military surplus, with cops playing at soldier with armored personnel carriers and assault rifles, according to a 2014 article from the Times.

The police already have all the tools they need at their disposal and then some. They don't need more. By taking a strong stand and making it clear that illegally-obtained evidence cannot be used, the Supreme Court can prove it's working on behalf of the constitution and the American people, not a broken criminal justice system.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: New York Times (2), The Washington PostThe New Yorker, Daily KosACLU, Slate, CheatSheet.com, National Paralegal College / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, USAG-Humphreys/Flickr

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