Evidence Admitted After Unlawful Detention Leads to Discovery of Arrest Warrant

An officer stopped Strieff after he left a home where officers had watched numerous persons come and go after a brief visit. Suspecting that Strieff was involved in drug crimes, the officer stopped him and asked what he was doing at the home. The officer asked for Strieff’s identification and checked for warrants. Upon learning of an active arrest warrant, the officer arrested Strieff. A search incident to arrest yielded methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

The Utah Supreme Court ordered the evidence suppressed on the grounds that it was derived from an unlawful investigatory stop. The United States Supreme Court reversed the Utah court, holding that the exclusionary rule does not bar admission of evidence discovered during a search that follows an unlawful detention when the subject has an outstanding arrest warrant. The Supreme Court stated that, absent “flagrant police misconduct,” the attenuation doctrine applied, severing the connection between the unlawful stop and the search incident to arrest.

The Court restated the three-part attenuation test articulated in Brown v. Illinois (422 U.S. 590 (1975)). A court reviewing a claim of attenuation between an alleged illegal stop and seizure of evidence should first consider the temporal proximity between the initially unlawful stop and the search. Here, the officer discovered the warrant and the contraband within moments of the initial stop. Next, the court looks at “the presence of intervening circumstances.” This factor also favored admission of the evidence because the valid warrant for Strieff predated the investigation and was entirely unconnected with the stop. The final factor is “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.” At most, the Court said, “the stop was an isolated instance of negligence that occurred in connection with a bona fide investigation of a suspected drug house.”

The Court noted that an officer’s error might still lead to civil liability as a deterrent to negligent police misconduct. Suppression of evidence was not the only remedy and was unnecessary in this case. On the flip side, Justice Sotomayor wrote a sharp dissent: “Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: 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.”

Some commentators see this decision as a nail in the coffin of the exclusionary rule. Others see the case as a mere restatement of Brown. The Court’s opinion clearly supports the philosophy that allegations of police malpractice—those that do not cast doubt on the validity of the evidence—are better resolved by administrative or civil remedies.

Utah v. Strieff, 136 S.Ct. 2056 (2016)

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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