Utah v. Strieff – U.S. Supreme Court Expands Lawless Searches

In a contentious 5-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court in Utah v. Strieff ruled in favor of a cop who seized drugs after an unlawful stop. It was only after that stop the officer learned the defendant had an outstanding traffic warrant. After making an arrest, the officer searched defendant and found drugs and paraphernalia. Plaintiff argued this evidence should be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. police

However, the majority ruled that although the initial stop was not lawful, which would normally mean any evidence obtained thereafter could not be used against defendant, the court instead chose to apply the attenuation doctrine. This doctrine states that even though the way the evidence was obtained was illegal, such evidence can still be admissible if the connection between the evidence and the illegal method is sufficiently thin or attenuated. The court held that the officer made a good-faith mistake when stopping the defendant, who was leaving a suspected drug house. This was not, the court decided, part of some systematic recurrence of police misconduct and nor would the decision result in the proliferation of dragnet searches for those with outstanding arrest warrants.

Dissenting Justice Sonya Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, had strong words of rebuke for the majority on this issue, saying unlawful police stops, “Corrode all our civil liberties and threaten our lives.” 

This was not, Kagan wrote in her own separate dissent, a “Barney Fife-type mishap.” Rather, this illegal stop was the result of a calculated decision that was made with so little justification, even the state never made an attempt to defend the legality of it. The discovery of an arrest warrant is an eminently foreseeable consequence of stopping people in certain regions, the dissenting justice wrote. For example in Ferguson, MO, there are 16,000 arrest warrants in a city with a population of 21,000 people.

According to court records, the facts in the case are this:

A police officer in Salt Lake City was investigating suspected drug activity at a certain residence after receiving an anonymous tip. Defendant exited the residence under surveillance, but the officer did not know who he was or how long he’d been there and thus had no reasonable cause to stop the man. However, that’s just what he did. During the encounter, in which the officer did not ask but rather demanded defendant speak to him, he learned of the outstanding traffic warrant. He then initiated an arrest and then search the suspect, at which point he found the drugs and paraphernalia.

Defendant insisted the evidence should be suppressed because it was collected from an unlawful stop by the officer. The trial court and appeals court both ruled against him, but the Utah Supreme Court overturned his conviction, citing the exclusionary rule. The state high court specifically held that the attenuation doctrine was not applicable.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed. Justice Clarence Thomas in writing the majority opinion wrote that the officer wasn’t simply fishing blindly. Instead, the purpose was to cull information about activity inside a suspected drug house. Thomas wrote that it was unlikely that allowing this type of misconduct would lead to “dragnet searches.”

As Sotomayor pointed out, that probably depends on the neighborhood.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

Utah v. Strieff , June 20, 2016, U.S. Supreme Court

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