The U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion on June 20, 2016 in the case of Utah v. Strieff. The question posed in this case was whether the attenuation doctrine applies when law enforcement makes an unconstitutional investigatory stop, learns during that stop that the person stopped has an arrest warrant, and proceeds to arrest the suspect and seize incriminating evidence.
In December 2006, an anonymous tip was called-in to the South Salt Lake City police’s drug-tip line to report “narcotics activity” at a particular residence. Detective Fackrell investigated the tip over the course of a week by conducting intermittent surveillance of the residence. He observed visitors leave the house only a few minutes after arriving, raising suspicion about whether the occupant was dealing drugs out of the residence.
One visitor, Strieff, was observed by Detective Fackrell leaving the house. Fackrell detained Strieff and asked for Strieff’s identification. Strieff complied and Fackrell relayed Strieff’s information to dispatch, who reported that Strieff had an arrest warrant for a minor traffic violation. Fackrell then arrested Strieff and searched him, revealing that Strieff had a bag of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia on his person.
Strieff was charged with possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Strieff moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the evidence was inadmissible because it was derived from an unlawful investigatory stop. The State conceded that Fackrell lacked any reasonable suspicion for the stop, but argued that the existence of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the discovery of the methamphetamine and paraphernalia.
The trial court denied Strieff’s motion, holding that the short time between the illegal stop and the search weighed in favor of suppressing the evidence, but two other considerations made the evidence admissible. First, the court considered the arrest warrant to be an “extraordinary intervening circumstance.” Second, the court found that the absence of “flagrant misconduct” by Fackrell, who was conducting a legitimate investigation of a suspected drug house.
Strieff entered a conditional guilty plea to the reduced charges of attempted possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. He appealed the trial court’s decision to the Utah Court of Appeals, who affirmed the trial court’s decision. However, the Utah Supreme Court reversed. Thus, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fourth Amendment Right Against Unreasonable Search and Seizure?
The 4th Amendment protects the right of people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. To prevent law enforcement from violating this rule, the exclusionary rule provides that evidence seized in violation of the 4th Amendment must be excluded from trial.
Several exceptions to this rule have been recognized. Three of the exceptions involve the causal relationship between the unconstitutional act and the discovery of evidence. First, the independent source doctrine allows trial courts to admit evidence obtained in an unlawful search if officers independently acquired it from a separate, independent source. Second, the inevitable discovery doctrine allows for the admission of evidence that would have been discovered even without the unconstitutional source. Third, and the exception that the U.S. Supreme Court found at issue in this case, is the attenuation doctrine: Evidence is admissible when the connection between unconstitutional police misconduct and the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the attenuation doctrine applied after discussing three factors. First, the Court looked to the “temporal proximity” between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of evidence. Second, the Court considered “the presence of intervening circumstances.” Finally, the court analyzed “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.”
As to the first factor, the Court felt that this favored suppressing the evidence. This factor favors attenuation unless “substantial time” elapses between an unlawful act and when the evidence is obtained. Here, Fackrell discovered methamphetamine and paraphernalia within minutes after the illegal stop.
The second factor, however, supported the State. The arrest warrant for Strieff was valid, it was not connected with the stop, and once the warrant was discovered, Fackrell had a duty to arrest Strieff. Once Fackrell was authorized to arrest Strieff, it was lawful for Fackrell to conduct a search incident to lawful arrest.
The third factor also weighed in favor of the State, according to the Court. The reasoning behind this is that the exclusionary rule exists to deter police misconduct. The Court felt that Fackrell was at most negligent and only made “good-faith mistakes.” Even though the initial stop was unlawful, Fackrell’s conduct afterwards was lawful. Moreover, the Court believed that the stop was not part of any systematic police misconduct.
Thus, the Court held that the evidence discovered on Strieff was admissible because the unlawful stop was sufficiently attenuated by the pre-existing arrest warrant. The discovery of an arrest warrant broke the causal chain between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of evidence. The Court found particularly significant that the Fackrell’s illegal stop was not flagrantly unlawful police misconduct.
Why the U.S. Supreme Now Allows Law Enforcement to Flagrantly Violate Your 4th Amendment Rights
As Justice Sotomayor explained in her blistering dissent: “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. If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will not excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.”
The stop was illegal and the 4th Amendment protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Law enforcement violates that protection when they detain a person without any evidence that the person is engaged in a crime. The officer then “deepens the breach” when he prolongs the detention to fish for evidence of wrongdoing. As Justice Sotomayor explained: “In his search for lawbreaking, the officer in this case himself broke the law.”
The exclusion rule protects the public from unlawful police conduct and removes the incentive for law enforcement to search us without proper justification. Moreover, when courts only admit evidence that is lawfully obtained, it encourages law enforcement to formulate policies that incorporate the ideals of the 4th Amendment. However, permitting courts to admit unlawfully seized evidence rewards the misconduct by law enforcement.
This was not a case where evidence was discovered by innocuous means, but one where the officer exploited his own illegality to discovery evidence of wrongdoing. Fackrell did not ask for Strieff to volunteer his name only to discover, days later, that Strieff had an active warrant out for his arrest. Fackrell unlawfully stopped Strieff and immediately ran a warrant check. The discovery of a warrant was not an intervening surprise because most states, including Utah, have hundreds of thousands of active arrest warrants out at any one time.
The stop of Strieff was part of an investigation into a potential drug house. His sole reason for stopping Strieff was to discovery whether drug activity was occurring in the house Strieff had just left. Thus, the warrant check was not an intervening circumstance separate from the search for drugs, but part of Fackrell’s “illegal expedition for evidence in the hope that something might turn up.”
The Court also failed us when they stated that Fackrell could not have exploited his illegal conduct because he did not violate the 4th Amendment on purpose. Rather, Fackrell only made a “good-faith mistake” that could not be deterred by the exclusionary rule. This is a wholly incorrect analysis. The 4th Amendment does not tolerate law enforcement’s unreasonable searches and seizures just because the officer did not know any better. Officer’s that are prone to negligence can learn from courts that exclude illegally obtained evidence.
Finally, the Court’s insistence that the facts of this case are “isolated,” with “no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct” is complete misinformed. Outstanding warrants are common in this country. When a person fails to pay a fine, misses a court appearance, or drinks alcohol while on probation, a warrant is issued for their arrest. There are currently over 7.8 million outstanding warrants in this country. To argue that the facts of this case are “isolated” or that the holding in this case will not lead to “systemic or recurrent police misconduct” is shockingly misguided.
Columbus and Delaware, Ohio Criminal Defense Attorney
If you have been charged with a drug offense in Columbus or Delaware, Ohio, contact Johnson Legal, LLC and speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Attorney David Johnson of Johnson Legal, LLC will discuss your case and assist you in fighting the charges. Call (614) 987-0192 or send an email to schedule a consultation regarding your drug offense case.
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