The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects you and me from unreasonable searches and seizures on the part of the government. Normally, this means that if the police search you or your property without your consent or without some other legal reason, the State cannot use anything the police found against you in trial. However, the United States Supreme Court has recently decided the police can avoid this limitation if you have an outstanding arrest warrant. No matter what the warrant is for. Utah v. Strieff, 579 U.S. _____ (2016).

Sometime in December of 2006, an anonymous caller contacted the South Salt Lake City police department with a tip regarding drug activity at a particular house. As a result of this tip, Officer Douglas Fackrell conducted surveillance of the residence for approximately one week. He noticed many visitors entering the home and leaving a few minutes later. This behavior caused him to suspect drug activity in the home.

Officer Fackrell observed Edward Strieff leave the residence during Officer Fackrell’s surveillance. After leaving the house, Mr. Strieff walked toward a nearby convenience store, where Officer Fackrell approached him. The officer asked Mr. Strieff what he was doing in the residence and asked for some identification. Mr. Strieff produced his Utah State Identification, and Officer Fackrell called dispatch to run a record-check. Dispatch reported that there was an outstanding arrest warrant pending for Mr. Strieff. As such, Officer Fackrell arrested Mr. Strieff pursuant to the outstanding warrant and searched Mr. Strieff’s person incident to that arrest. The search produced a baggie of meth and some drug paraphernalia.

Accordingly, Mr. Strieff was charged with possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that the evidence should be thrown out because it was found as a result of an unlawful stop by the police officer. The State argued that the evidence was admissible because the valid arrest warrant broke the connection between the illegal stop and the search. The trial court ruled against Mr. Strieff and declared the evidence admissible. Mr. Strieff entered into a plea agreement but reserved his right to appeal the denial of the suppression motion.

The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, declaring the evidence admissible. The Utah Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling. It held the evidence inadmissible because only “a voluntary act of a defendant’s free will (as in a confession or consent to search)” is enough to break the connection between the illegal search and the discovery of the evidence. The Utah Supreme Court held the outstanding arrest warrant for Mr. Strieff was not enough to break the connection, and the evidence should be thrown out as a result.

THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT DISAGREES.

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The general rule is that evidence should be thrown out if it was found as a result of an unconstitutional search or seizure. This is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. SCOTUS focused on one of the exceptions to this general rule: the attenuation doctrine. This doctrine provides that evidence is allowed when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the discovery of the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance.

Basically, SCOTUS focused its analysis on whether the discovery of a valid arrest warrant was enough to break the connection between the unlawful stop and the discovery of the drugs and paraphernalia on Mr. Strieff’s person. The court analyzed the three factors from another case (Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (1975)) to make its ruling.

First, the court considered the “temporal proximity” between the unlawful stop and the discovery of the drugs. Basically, if there is a significant amount of time between the unlawful police activity and the discovery of the evidence, the courts have ruled that the evidence is admissible. Since Officer Fackrell discovered the drugs literally within minutes of stopping Mr. Strieff, this factor weighs in favor of throwing the evidence out.

Second, SCOTUS considered “the presence of intervening circumstances”. The court ruled that the outstanding arrest warrant was valid, came into existence before the encounter between Officer Fackrell and Mr. Strieff, and was entirely unconnected with the stop. Once Officer Fackrell discovered the outstanding warrant, he had an obligation under the law to arrest Mr. Strieff. As a result of the arrest, Officer Fackrell searched Mr. Strieff’s person for officer safety. The court found the existence and discovery of the valid outstanding arrest warrant strongly favors the state. That means the evidence should not be thrown out.

Finally, the court considered “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct”. Basically, the purpose of the exclusionary rule (excluding evidence based on a violation of the Fourth Amendment) is to deter police misconduct. Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229 (2011). This factor favors throwing the evidence out only when the police misconduct is purposeful and flagrant. In this case, SCOTUS found that Officer Fackrell was negligent, at worst. “While Officer Fackrell’s decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful.” Strieff, 579 U.S. _____ (2016).

In other words, even though the initial contact with Mr. Strieff was unlawful and unconstitutional, the fact that Officer Fackrell discovered a valid outstanding arrest warrant for Mr. Strieff cures any illegality or unconstitutionality of the stop; therefore, the evidence can be used in the trial.

This is a huge change to your and my Fourth Amendment protections. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court made it a whole lot easier for the State to use evidence that was considered illegally obtained before this case. If you or someone you know has been arrested, please give us a call to see how we can help you!