Utah v. Strieff – Supreme Court Weakens Fourth Amendment

By Benson Varghese

Last Updated: June 4th, 2020
Published on: June 21st, 2016


The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” An officer must have reasonable suspicion to stop an individual. Reasonable suspicion is a set of specific, articulable facts that suggest a crime has been, is, or is about to be committed.

Generally, a person stopped without reasonable suspicion is being subjected to an illegal stop. Traditionally courts have disincentivized police misconduct in making illegal stops by deeming evidence gathered as a result of an illegal stop inadmissible in court. This is known as the Exclusionary Rule. While the Exclusionary Rule has been a long-standing tenant in American justice, the decision in Utah v. Strieff handed down yesterday significantly erodes the Exclusionary Rule and basic Fourth Amendment principles.

Utah v. Strieff

In December 2006, an anonymous tip led Detective Fackrell to watch a suspected drug house. While watching the house for possible drug activity, he saw Edward Strieff leave the house so he followed him to a nearby 7-11 where he stopped Strieff and questioned Strieff about his activity at the house. While speaking to Strieff, Detective Fackrell checked for warrants and discovered Strieff had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. After the arrest, Detective Fackrell found a baggie of methamphetamine on Strieff’s persons. At a suppression hearing, the prosecutor agreed that Detective Fackrell did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Strieff.

This stop, the subsequent arrest, and the seizure of evidence became the factual basis for the appeal to the Supreme Court in Utah v. Strieff. The Court ruled that otherwise illegally seized evidence may be admissible in court if the illegal stop is attenuated by a pre-existing untainted arrest warrant. The Court viewed a pre-existing arrest warrant as an intervening circumstance that overcomes the need to suppress illegally obtained evidence. The Court reasoned that although there is a public policy basis for excluding evidence gathered as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure, the gathered evidence is admissible when the illegal conduct of the stop is attenuated because of the pre-existing lawful arrest warrant.

In applying the attenuation doctrine to the exclusionary rule, the Court also raised the burden of showing why police misconduct should result in the application of the Exclusionary Rule. Specifically, in declining to apply the Exclusionary Rule, the majority noted a lack of “systemic or recurrent police misconduct.” A showing of systemic or recurrent police conduct has never been required before illegally obtained evidence was suppressed.

The decision was handed down by a 5-3 majority. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent has already become the topic of conversations across the country. She noted the Court’s decision means the “discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.” “This is a remarkable proposition,” she continued, “the mere existence of a warrant not only gives an officer legal cause to arrest and search a person, it also forgives an officer who, with no knowledge of the warrant at all, unlawfully stops that person on a whim or hunch.”

Utah v. Strieff

More on Sotomayor’s Dissent:

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