In American constitutional law, the exclusionary rule mandates that, in most circumstances, illegally obtained evidence cannot be used in criminal prosecutions and must be suppressed. Since it became a codified principle of both federal and state Fourth Amendment jurisprudence in the Warren Court era, the Supreme Court has tried to outline what precisely the rule protects and what exceptions, if any, should be recognized. Utah v. Strieff prompts a discussion about how the purpose of the exclusionary rule impacts its breadth and how the currently accepted exceptions should be applied.
In December 2006, an anonymous caller left a tip with the South Salt Lake City police department. The caller provided the address for a house in which the tipper suspected “narcotics activity” was taking place. Detective Doug Fackrell, an 18-year law enforcement veteran, watched the house for three hours over the course of the week and observed visitation and foot-traffic patterns that indicated drug activity.
On December 21, Fackrell watched Edward Strieff leave the house in question, followed him for a block, and stopped him for questioning. Fackrell asked Strieff for identification and conveyed his information to dispatch, asking them to run a warrant check. After dispatch told Fackrell that Strieff had an active arrest warrant, he arrested and searched Strieff. Fackrell found that Strieff had been carrying methamphetamine and other drug paraphernalia.
Strieff was later charged with possession of these illicit materials, but argued that Fackrell illegally detained him. Since his initial detention was illegal, Strieff explained, all of the evidence obtained by Fackrell should be suppressed in accordance with the exclusionary rule.
The lower court found that Fackrell’s initial stop was indeed illegal under the standard established in Terry v. Ohio, as he did not have reasonable suspicion that Strieff was engaged in illegal activity. Despite this finding, the trial court determined that the Fourth Amendment did not mandate that the evidence obtained through the search be suppressed. The Utah Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s judgment, and held that no exception to the exclusionary rule applied in the case.
The exclusionary rule was first articulated in Weeks v. United States (1914). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illegal searches and seizures should be read to ban illegally obtained evidence from criminal prosecutions. Doing so, the Court explained, helps to protect one of the “great fundamental rights secured by the Constitution.”
The ruling in Weeks was only binding on federal agents until 1961, when the Court decided Mapp v. Ohio. In Mapp, the Court held that illegally obtained evidence is inadmissible in both federal and state courts, and reaffirmed the importance of the rule to the realization of Fourth Amendment protection.
Since Mapp, however, the Court has clarified that the exclusionary rule is not absolute, and has carved out multiple exceptions. For example, if an officer acts in “good faith,” but inadvertently conducts an illegal search, evidence from that search ought not to be excluded at trial. Furthermore, if evidence obtained would have been “inevitably discovered,” it does not matter whether it was initially discovered through an illegal search.
The motivating factor for these exceptions was the Court’s determination that the exclusionary rule should not be treated as an absolute constitutional right, but rather applied insofar as it is instrumentally valuable. A main purpose of the rule, after all, is to deter police misconduct—to send the message to police that they ought not to engage in illegal searches because the evidence will not be useful.
One of the main questions in Utah v. Strieff is whether the “attenuation exception” to the exclusionary rule applies in this case. Under the attenuation doctrine, some evidence can be admissible, even if it was initially illegally obtained, if the connection or causal chain between the illegal governmental action and incriminating evidence is sufficiently weak. For example, voluntary guilty confessions that occurred after illegal arrests have been deemed admissible under this exception, as the link between the constitutional violation and the actual evidence is judged insufficiently robust.
The brief filed by the prosecution in this case argued that that the warrant-arrest broke the connection between the initial unlawful stop by the officer and the eventual discovery of illicit substances. They argue that, since there was an outstanding warrant, the evidence seized was more closely connected to the lawful arrest associated with the warrant than to the unlawful stop. Therefore, they argue, the suppression of the evidence would serve “no appreciable deterrence purpose” and therefore is not constitutionally required.
On the other hand, lawyers for Strieff assert that the attenuation exception should not apply in this case and that the evidence should be suppressed. They argue that the exception should only be applied when the causal chain between the police misconduct and incriminating evidence is broken by an action freely pursued by the defendant, like when a defendant chooses to confess after an illegal detention. Since the intervening factor that broke the causal chain—the arrest related to the outstanding warrant—was not an “independent act of free will on the part of the defendant,” the exception does not apply and the exclusionary rule should suppress the evidence.
An interesting amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the assertion that the only rationale for the exclusionary rule is the deterrence of police misconduct. If one considers how the exclusionary rule safeguards judicial integrity and ensures that victims of illegal searches and seizures are made as well off as they would have been had the violation not occurred, they say, it becomes clear that the evidence should be suppressed in this case.
Oral arguments in Utah v. Strieff will occur on the opening day of the Court’s first session since the unexpected passing of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13. In 2006, Justice Scalia penned the majority opinion in Hudson v. Michigan, which touched on questions similar to those are raised in the present case. In that decision, Scalia noted that the Court has rejected the “indiscriminate application” of the exclusionary rule, and underscored the importance of weighing the social benefits of exclusion—deterrence and privacy protection—with the social costs of having individuals who violated the law avoid prosecution because of governmental misconduct.Jonathan Stahl is an intern at the National Constitution Center. He is also a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in politics, philosophy and economics.
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