SCOTUS Allows Search Following Unconstitutional Stop when in Connection to Outstanding Arrest Warrant

-- Dateline: June 20, 2016

On Monday, June 20, the Supreme Court, upheld in a 5-3 decision, a conviction stemming from evidence obtained following an unconstitutional investigatory stop. See Utah v. Strieff, 2016 WL 3369419 (2016). The Court reasoned, under the so-called attenuation doctrine, that because the stop eventually lead to the legal execution of an arrest warrant, the evidence obtained therefrom was admissible at trial. Despite the clear Fourth Amendment violation, the Court held that the costs of excluding the evidence greatly outweighed its possible deterrent effects. This is because the connection between the prohibited behavior and the discovery of the evidence was too attenuated. 

In South Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2006, defendant Edward Strieff was stopped by an officer, gave the officer his ID, and was then arrested by the officer for an outstanding traffic violation. During the arrest, the officer found a bag of methamphetamine and paraphernalia. At trial, the prosecution conceded that the officer lacked the reasonable suspicion to execute the stop. Despite this fact, the trial court found that the outstanding warrant diminished the connection between the unlawful stop and the discovery of the evidence. The Utah Supreme Court reversed, holding that only a voluntary act on part of the defendant can sever the connection between such a search and the discovery of evidence. 

In an opinion penned by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court held that under Hudson v. Michigan, suppressing the evidence would not protect a Fourth Amendment interest. Following Brown v. Illinois, the Court analyzed three factors in determining the evidence should not be excluded: the time between the unlawful conduct and the discovery, any intervening circumstances, and the intentionality of the misconduct. Under the second factor, the Court found that the existence of the arrest warrant provided an intervening circumstance that severely weakened the connection between the illegal search and the finding of the evidence. Under the third factor, the Court found that the arresting officer’s misconduct was not willful, but at most careless. Because of these reasons, the Court held that suppressing the evidence would not serve as a warning against future police misconduct. 

In a scathing dissent, Justice Sotomayor, found the majority’s reasoning unpersuasive. “But the Fourth Amendment does not tolerate an officer’s unreasonable searches and seizures just because he did not know any better,” she wrote, questioning how because the officer’s actions were negligent, that somehow made them “incapable of being deterred by the exclusionary rule.” 

Then speaking only for herself as to Part IV, she emphasized that the holding will continue to perpetuate divisions in our society that leaves many feeling like “second-class citizens.” She adds that, “it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this kind of scrutiny.” The Justice went on to assert that complicity in the face of such searches weakens our democratic ideals. “We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated.’ They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.”