On June 20th, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Utah v. Strieff, holding 5-3 that an officer’s subsequent discovery of an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation excused his unconstitutional stop and search of the defendant and thus evidence obtained through the illegal search could be admitted against the defendant rather than excluded from evidence.
The incident began when the arresting officer observed the defendant Strieff leaving a house which police had been monitoring due to suspected drug activity. The officer then followed Strieff, who was on foot, to a convenience store where he detained him and asked what he had been doing in the house. During this stop, the officer asked for Strieff’s identification, and upon relaying his information back to dispatch, learned that Strieff had an outstanding warrant for his arrest due to a minor traffic violation. Because of this, the officer arrested Strieff and upon searching him, found methamphetamine and paraphernalia on his person.
In the majority opinion, Justice Thomas explained that the exclusionary rule, which often requires trial courts to exclude unlawfully obtained evidence in a criminal trial, is only applicable when its deterrence benefits outweigh substantial social costs. Further, Justice Thomas explained that traditionally, suppression of evidence has been the Court’s last resort, not its first impulse. Several exceptions to the exclusionary rule exist, but the one at issue in this case was the attenuation doctrine, which states: “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 the suppression of the evidence obtained.”
Three main factors guided the Court’s analysis of the attenuation doctrine: 1) the temporal proximity between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence; 2) the presence of intervening circumstances; and 3) the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct. The Court conceded that the first factor favored Strieff because it was only a matter of minutes between the illegal stop and the discovery of the incriminating evidence. However, regarding the second factor, the Court explained that because the warrant existed prior to the stop and was completely unrelated to the stop, it was an intervening circumstance and the officer had an obligation to arrest Strieff after learning of it. Third, the Court analyzed the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct, concluding that the officer was negligent at most. The officer made two “good-faith mistakes,” the first of which was failing to observe what time Strieff had entered the house to determine how long he had spent there before leaving. The officer’s second mistake was demanding that Strieff speak with him, rather than simply asking him. Further, the Court explained that the warrant check was a “negligibly burdensome precaution” for officer safety, and therefore lawful. Additionally, the Court excused the unlawful actions of the officer because they were an isolated incident of negligence rather than the result of any systemic or recurring police misconduct.
In summary, the majority held that the evidence discovered on Strieff’s person was admissible because the unlawful search was sufficiently attenuated by the existing arrest warrant. While it was true that it was a very short time between the unlawful search and the discovery of the evidence, the Court held that this factor was outweighed by the fact that the warrant was an intervening circumstance independent of the stop, and that there was no evidence of systemic police misconduct.
Many are concerned about this ruling and view it as as judicial authorization of police violation of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion articulating these concerns, explaining that the purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to protect against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that an officer violates that protection when he detains a pedestrian to check his license without any evidence that the person engaged in a crime. Indeed, Justice Sotomayor explained that illegal conduct by an officer should not be excused simply because it uncovers illegal behavior by a citizen, in large part because under the Fourth Amendment, two wrongs don’t make a right. On the contrary, the warrant was not an intervening circumstance separating the illegal stop from the discovery of the evidence, but rather the product of the officer’s illegal “expedition for evidence in the hope that something might turn up.” According to Sotomayor, because the officer found the drugs by exploiting his own constitutional violation, the evidence should have been excluded. Justice Sotomayor also attacked the majority’s reasoning that the officer’s illegal behavior should have been excused simply because he didn’t know any better, pointing out that his sole purpose for stopping Strieff in the first place was to fish for evidence. Further, Sotomayor challenged the idea that this was merely an isolated incident, citing similar behavior by officers in various parts of the country.
To read the Supreme Court’s opinion in its entirety, click here.
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