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The Supreme Court's Utah v. Strieff decision and the Fourth Amendment

June 22, 2016 by Joshua Waimberg


On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Utah v. Strieff, involving the intricacies of the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure doctrine, and the accompanying exclusionary rule.  In a 5-3 opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court held that the evidence obtained from an unlawful police stop would not be excluded from court because the link between the stop and the evidence’s discovery was “attenuated” by the discovery of an outstanding warrant during the stop.

640px-Inside_the_United_States_Supreme_CourtThe Strieff case arose from a 2006 incident where the police received an anonymous tip that drugs were being sold out of a Salt Lake City house. After observing the property for suspicious activity for the next week, Officer Douglas Fackrell stopped and detained Edward Strieff, Jr. as he was leaving the house. Officer Fackrell ran Strieff’s identification, and discovered that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. When Strieff was searched incident to his arrest under the warrant, methamphetamines and drug paraphernalia was discovered in his pockets. Strieff was then charged with drug-related offenses.

Strieff argued that the evidence discovered on him should be suppressed because the police officer had no reasonable suspicion to stop him the first place. Under the exclusionary rule, when a police officer unlawfully stops an individual, the evidence obtained illegally is tainted and cannot be used in trial. Strieff argued that because the evidence was found during an illegal stop, the evidence was tainted and should be suppressed.

The state countered by arguing that the exclusionary rule should not apply because the existence of the warrant was an intervening event that broke the chain of causation between the illegal stop and the discovery of evidence during the search incident to arrest. The state said  that because the arrest was based on the legal warrant, and not the illegal stop, the warrant was the proximate cause of the discovery.

The Utah Supreme Court sided with Strieff and ordered the evidence suppressed. They found that this incident did not fall within the attenuation exception to the exclusionary rule – an exception which allows for the use of evidence found unlawfully if the connection between the misconduct and the evidence’s discovery is weak.

Justice Thomas, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Justice Samuel Alito, and (surprisingly) Justice Stephen Breyer, reversed the Utah Supreme Court’s decision. The majority wrote that if an officer makes an illegal stop and then discovers an arrest warrant, the stop and its fruit will not be excluded in court. However, if there was “flagrant police misconduct,” which there wasn’t in this case, then the exclusionary rule would apply.

Justice Thomas wrote, that,

“While Officer Fackrell’s decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful. The officer’s decision to run the warrant check was a ‘negligibly burdensome precautio[n]’ for officer safety... And Officer Fackrell’s actual search of Strieff was a lawful search incident to arrest...

"Moreover, there is no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct. To the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the stop was an isolated instance of negligence that occurred in connection with a bona-fide investigation of a suspected drug house…

"Applying these factors, we hold that the evidence discovered on Strieff’s person was admissible because the unlawful stop was sufficiently attenuated by the pre-existing arrest warrant. Although the illegal stop was close in time to Strieff’s arrest, that consideration is outweighed by two factors supporting the State. The outstanding arrest warrant for Strieff’s arrest is a critical intervening circumstance that is wholly independent of the illegal stop. The discovery of that warrant broke the causal chain between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of evidence by compelling Officer Fackrell to arrest Strieff. And, it is especially significant that there is no evidence that Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct."

In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined in part by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, concluded by writing:

"By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.

"We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but."

Justice Elena Kagan also wrote a dissent of her own, and was also joined by Justice Ginsburg. She wrote that the majority’s decision:

"[C]reates unfortunate incentives for the police— indeed, practically invites them to do what Fackrell did here. Consider an officer who, like Fackrell, wishes to stop someone for investigative reasons, but does not have what a court would view as reasonable suspicion. If the officer believes that any evidence he discovers will be inadmissible, he is likely to think the unlawful stop not worth making—precisely the deterrence the exclusionary rule is meant to achieve. But when he is told of today’s decision? Now the officer knows that the stop may well yield admissible evidence: So long as the target is one of the many millions of people in this country with an outstanding arrest warrant, anything the officer finds in a search is fair game for use in a criminal prosecution. The officer’s incentive to violate the Constitution thus increases: From here on, he sees potential advantage in stopping individuals without reasonable suspicion—exactly the temptation the exclusionary rule is supposed to remove. Because the majority thus places Fourth Amendment protections at risk, I respectfully dissent."

Joshua Waimberg is a legal fellow at the National Constitution Center.

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