On June 20, 2016, in a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States in Utah v. Strieff, issued a holding that rocked the 4th Amendment world. The Court carved out an exception to the Exclusionary Rule that allows law enforcement to detain and search you if you have an outstanding warrant. You might be asking, “haven’t they always been able to do that?” No, prior to this decision, a police officer could stop you only if the officer had reasonable suspicion to believe that you were engaged in criminal activity. If the stop was illegal, any evidence seized as a result of the illegal stop would be suppressed and could not be used against you. The high court’s holding in Strieff effectively allows the admissibility of the evidence even if the stop was illegal as was the case in Strieff.
WHAT HAPPENED IN STRIEFF?
In Strieff, Officer Fackrell was conducting surveillance on a residence as it was suspected that drugs were being sold out of the home. On the day in question, he observed Strieff leave the residence and detained him. He requested Strieff’s identification, relayed this info to the police dispatcher who told him that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Officer Fackrell arrested Strieff, searched him and found meth and drug paraphernalia on Strieff’s person. Charges were filed against Strieff, he moved to suppress the evidence arguing that the stop was illegal. The prosecutor conceded that Officer Fackrell did not have reasonable suspicion for the stop but argued that the evidence should not be suppressed because the existence of a valid arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the discovery of the contraband. (See Strieff, supra.)
Strieff’s motion was denied, Strieff later appealed that decision which was affirmed by the Utah Court of Appeals but was reversed by the Utah Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to resolve the issue as to how the attenuation doctrine is applied when an unlawful detention leads to the discovery of a valid arrest warrant.
WHAT IS THE ATTENUATION DOCTRINE?
Simply put, the Attenuation Doctrine allows the admissibility of illegally obtained evidence if the connection between the evidence and the illegal method is sufficiently remote or attenuated.
3 FACTORS THAT COURTS CONSIDER WHEN APPLYING THE ATTENUATION DOCTRINE
- The time lapse between the unlawful police conduct and the obtaining of the evidence sought to be suppressed-the shorter the time, the less likely is attenuation of the illegality
- The presence of intervening circumstances
- The purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct
Applying Factor #1, the Court in Strieff stated that because Officer Fackrell discovered the drugs only minutes after the stop, suppression of the evidence was favored. Applying Factor #2, the Court stated that since Strieff had an outstanding warrant, Officer Fackrell had an obligation to arrest Strieff and since it was lawful to arrest him, he also had the right to search Strieff as a search incident to arrest. Applying Factor #3, the Court concluded that Officer Fackrell’s misconduct was negligent and not flagrant. After analyzing all of these factors, the Court held that the evidence that Officer Fackrell seized from Strieff’s person as part of the search incident to arrest was admissible.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
According to Justice Sotomayor who wrote one of the dissenting opinions, this decision means that “the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment right…” “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 now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.” (Strieff, supra.)
The holding in Strieff essentially gives police officers the right to make illegal stops and if evidence of a crime is found on your person, charges may be filed and that evidence which at one time would have been thrown out because of the illegal stop will likely be admitted against you.
 Utah v. Strieff, 579 U.S. ___ (2016 )
 Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590
 Arizona v. Gant, U.S. 332, 339