Supreme Court Ruling Could Have Major Impact on Fourth Amendment Rights During Police Searches

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in late June 2016 that limits a critical constitutional right in criminal cases. Utah v. Strieff, 579 U.S. ___ (2016). Under the “exclusionary rule,” a court must exclude evidence obtained by police in violation of a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights against warrantless searches and seizures. In this case, a 5-3 court decision held that the exclusionary rule did not apply when a police officer unlawfully detained someone but discovered an unrelated arrest warrant prior to searching them. Several justices sharply dissented, with one stating that this ruling creates “unfortunate incentives for the police.” Id. at 6 (J. Kagan, dissenting).

A defendant may move to suppress evidence allegedly obtained in violation of their rights. This type of evidence is sometimes known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” since it derives from an unconstitutional action. See Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338, 392 (1939); Silverthorne Lumber Co., Inc. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920). The court has identified multiple exceptions to the exclusionary rule, including one known as the “attenuation doctrine.” A court is not required to exclude evidence if “the link between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence is too attenuated to justify suppression.” Strieff, slip op. at 1.

Police were surveilling a house in 2006, looking for suspected drug activity based on an anonymous tip, when they saw the defendant in Strieff enter the house. When he left the house, an officer stopped him to ask for identification. A warrant check showed that he had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. The officer arrested the defendant, and a search of his person revealed drugs and drug paraphernalia.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search on the basis that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop and question him. The prosecution conceded that reasonable suspicion was lacking, but it argued that the attenuation doctrine should apply because of the outstanding arrest warrant. The trial court denied the suppression motion, and the defendant entered a conditional guilty plea.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling on the motion to suppress, 286 P. 3d 317 (Utah App. 2012). The Utah Supreme Court reversed on the ground that the attenuating circumstances “involve[d] no independent act of a defendant’s free will.” 357 P. 3d 532, 536 (Utah 2015). The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether an outstanding warrant, found during an unlawful stop, overcomes the exclusionary rule.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower court, essentially reinstating the defendant’s guilty plea. The majority of the justices found that the officer’s “discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized from Strieff incident to arrest.” Strieff, slip op. at 10.

Justices Kagan and Sotomayor each wrote dissenting opinions. Justice Kagan noted that the majority’s ruling creates an incentive for police to stop people without reasonable suspicion of anything if they think they might find an outstanding arrest warrant afterwards. Justice Sotomayor went farther in her dissent, stating that the majority’s decision “tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time” and “that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued.” Id. at 12 (J. Sotomayor, dissenting).

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has fought for over 20 years to defend the rights of people charged with alleged offenses in west Texas state and federal courts. To schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and skilled advocate for criminal justice, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Appellate Courts Split on Question of Cell Phone Tracking Technology and the Fourth Amendment, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, February 26, 2016

Federal Lawsuit Addresses Government’s Authority to Detain, Search Individuals at U.S. Border Without a Warrant, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 30, 2015

FBI Use of Unmanned Drones for Aerial Surveillance Raises Fourth Amendment Concerns, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 9, 2015


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