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Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Utah v Streiff: The Prevalence of Arrest Warrants

I was listening to the oral arguments of this case Monday and was struck by some rather incredible statistics: in some poorer black communities as many as 80% of the citizens have outstanding arrest warrants, most for minor traffic offenses. So part of the question was whether the police had an incentive to randomly stop people just for the purpose of warrants checks.

What happened in this case was that the officer was observing a house for suspected drug activity based on an anonymous tip. He saw a fellow leave the house and walk away. In what was admitted by the state to be an unlawful stop, the officer searched the man and found some drug paraphernalia (this was ruled inadmissible because the stop was illegal) but the officer also did a warrants check and discovered an outstanding arrest warrant so the man was arrested. Streiff was arguing that the warrants check should also have been thrown out because the stop was illegal.

I was a bit sympathetic to the officer until I remembered a more personal case. When my oldest son was in his twenties he had trouble paying his car insurance so I decided to help him by paying it for him. In Illinois, if ever you don't pay your car insurance, you go into a pool that has to purchase a certain kind of insurance that's tracked by the state. I did not know that. I was just paying regular insurance. The cost was the same. Because of that a warrant was issued for his arrest. (Note that you are not notified of a warrant for your arrest.) As it happens, he was stopped in the small town (pop. 1500) close to where we live after visiting us with his daughter, age 11, for going 40 mph in a 30 mph zone. The local cop ran a warrants check, found the warrant, placed my son in handcuffs, (leaving his daughter on the sidewalk - fortunately she called us with her cell phone or she would have been just left there) and my son was hauled off to jail. Whether the fact that my son is black (he's adopted) and my granddaughter mixed race in an overwhelmingly white community is relevant in the cop's conduct, I leave to your imagination. We got it all straightened out, but my son had to spend a night in jail for what ultimately was my mistake.

It was clear from the colloquy between Justice Alito and Justice Sotomayor that Justice Alito had no idea that the issuance of warrants is automatic in traffic offenses (not to mention failure to appear for jury duty, and parking tickets) and that many otherwise innocent people are out there walking/driving around with warrants they may not even know about. The way she called him out on it though hardly bodes well for collegiality in the future.

Interesting to see how this one will turn out; probably 4-4 thus affirming Utah Supreme Court's overturning of the lower courts. Audio
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