Associate Michael J. Pellegrini, Esq. on the recent United States Supreme Court Decision in Utah v. Strieff 579 U.S. ___ (2016):
In the case of Utah v. Strieff, the United States Supreme Court reached an important decision involving the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, the exclusionary rule, and their application to individuals that have an active warrant for their arrest. The exclusionary rule is a legal principle that sometimes prevents the government from using evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution in a criminal prosecution. The exclusionary rule functions as a remedy for unconstitutional conduct by the government, and serves as a prophylactic to deter police from gathering evidence in violation of the Constitution.
In Strieff, after receiving an anonymous tip, South Salt Lake City Police Department Detective Douglas Fackrell began surveilling a residence suspected of being involved in the sale of narcotics. Over the course of a week, Detective Fackrell conducted intermittent surveillance of the residence, and witnessed a suspicious number of people coming to visit for very short periods of time before leaving, behavior that he associated with drug activity. Detective Fackrell witnessed Edward Strieff exit the residence, but there is no evidence that the detective knew how long he was inside prior to exiting. Detective Fackrell stopped and detained Strieff in order to investigate what was going on inside the residence, but all parties agreed that Detective Fackrell lacked any reasonable articulable suspicion that Strieff was involved in any criminal activity at the time, and that there was no legal basis for the initial detention. Subsequent to the stop, Detective Fackrell requested Strieff's identification, which he relayed to dispatch and learned that there was an outstanding warrant for Strieff’s arrest on a traffic violation. Detective Fackrell arrested Strieff pursuant to the warrant, performed a search incident to arrest, and discovered methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia on Strieff's person. After being charged with possession of these items, Strieff argued that the evidence must be suppressed because the items were discovered due to Detective Fackrell's unlawful detention, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Under many circumstances, not only is evidence obtained directly from an illegal search or seizure suppressed under the exclusionary rule, evidence derived indirectly from that initial illegality is also suppressed. This indirectly obtained evidence is sometimes referred to as the “fruit of the poisonous tree," a metaphor used to describe a situation where evidence is obtained because of the earlier illegal police conduct. The fruit, like the tree, is tainted by the illegality, and the evidence derived from that conduct is inadmissible. One exception to the “fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine is known as the attenuation doctrine, where such evidence may be admissible if the connection between the evidence and the initial illegal method is sufficiently remote or attenuated.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision authored by Justice Thomas, held that the evidence was admissible under the attenuation doctrine, finding that the unlawful stop was sufficiently attenuated by the preexisting valid arrest warrant. The Court applied a three factor test for the attenuation doctrine identified in Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (1975). First, the Court looked at the temporal proximity between the illegal conduct and the discovery of the evidence, and found that this factor weighed in favor of suppressing the evidence, as only a short period of time passed between the stop and the search. Second, the Court looked to determine if there were intervening circumstances between the illegal detention and the discovery of the evidence. The Court held that the revelation of an valid, outstanding arrest warrant constituted an intervening circumstance between the violation of the Fourth Amendment and the discovery of the evidence, strongly weighing in favor of admissibility. The third factor is the flagrancy or outrageousness of the police misconduct. The Court held that this factor weighed strongly in favor of admissibility, finding that the unlawful detention was not part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct but merely an isolated instance of negligence occurring in connection with a bona fide investigation of a suspected drug house.
In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Sotomayor argued that the majority's holding forgives an officer who, with no knowledge of the warrant at all, unlawfully stops that person on a whim or hunch. Justice Sotomayor argued that the decision would have the practical effect of allowing the police to stop people, demand identification, and check for outstanding warrants, all without any reason to believe that the person is doing anything wrong. Justice Sotomayor criticized the majority's characterization of the police officer's actions to be isolated, citing civil-rights investigations demonstrating how some police departments regularly engage in similar conduct, including a federal investigation of Salt Lake County, and inquired how the majority expected a defendant prove that his or her was the result of widespread misconduct. Justice Sotomayor also stressed that the decision would not be a limited one, pointing to the fact that the States and Federal Government maintains databases with over 7.8 million outstanding warrants, the vast majority of which are for minor offenses. Finally, Justice Sotomayor recognized that minority communities will be the most affected by this decision, and that the decision with subject many innocent people to the humiliations of unconstitutional searches.