U.S. joins Costa Rica in broadening police searches

Costa Rica does not prohibit police from stopping and frisking individuals without reasonable probable cause.

Fuerza Pública officers can be seen daily telling young men to turn out their pockets and submit to a search. In fact, this is one of the government’s major weapons in the war against drugs.

The same is true with vehicles. The Fuerza Pública sets up checkpoints. Officers flag down vehicles and search them without probable cause. In fact a major, fixed checkpoint has been financed with U.S. taxpayer money on the InterAmericana Sur. The pretext, of course, is to catch smugglers of drugs and other products.

One case that should be a warning to expats took place Tuesday morning in Esparza. Officers stopped a car and found that the driver was carrying $5,000 in U.S. 20-dollar bills along with about $1,800 in colons.

When the man could not explain to the satisfaction of police from where the money came, they confiscated it and his car. They said an anti-drug dog responded to traces in the vehicle. Plenty of expats have reason to carry that amount of cash and more, particularly for payrolls, Caja payments and agricultural purchases. However, $10,000 or more must be declared on plane trips.

Until Monday such police activity would have been unthinkable in the United States where the standard for a search is probable cause. But Monday the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Utah v. Strieff.

The court voted 5-3 to reverse a Utah Supreme Court decision that invalidated a police officer’s search of a pedestrian.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent to the decision, said “The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.  Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: 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.”

That is exactly what happened in 2006. A detective stopped Edward Strieff when he was leaving a building identified by an informant as a location where drugs were sold. The detective stopped Strieff and ordered him to identify himself. After checking with headquarters by radio, the detective found that the man was named in an outstanding warrant for the unpaid parking ticket. On the strength of that warrant, he forced Strieff to turn out his pockets to reveal paraphernalia and some drugs.

Lawyers for Strieff wanted to have the evidence suppressed due to an unjustified search.

Justice Sotomayor also said in her lengthy dissent that “This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants — so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.”

Justice Elena Kagan also dissented and said:

“If a police officer stops a person on the street without reasonable suspicion, that seizure violates the Fourth Amendment.  And if the officer pats down the unlawfully detained individual and finds drugs in his pocket, the State may not use the contraband as evidence in a criminal prosecution. That much is beyond dispute. The question here is whether the prohibition on admitting evidence dissolves if the officer discovers, after making the stop but before finding the drugs, that the person has an outstanding arrest warrant. Because that added wrinkle makes no difference under the Constitution, I respectfully dissent.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the decision that was supported by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also dissented.

Thomas, citing a 2006 decision, wrote that “evidence is admissible when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance, so that ‘the interest protected by the constitutional guarantee that has been violated would not be served by suppression of the evidence obtained.’”

“With this ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively stripped Americans of their Fourth Amendment rights and provided police with even greater incentives to erode our freedoms, undermine our sovereignty, abuse our trust, invade our privacy and generally operate above the law,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead. He heads The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.

He said the decision has opened the door for police to stop, arrest and search citizens without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

A lot of civil libertarians like Whitehead have said that the U.S. war on drugs and now the threat of terrorism are eroding individual freedoms.

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