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Utah v. Strieff

We recently blogged ad nauseam about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bernard v. Minnesota and its impact on DWI laws, especially in Minnesota. But the most important Fourth Amendment decision from the Court’s 2016 term is Utah v. Strieff. As a result, a police officer may illegally stop someone, see if they have an outstanding warrant, if they do, they can arrest them, search them, and use any evidence obtained thereafter. What’s the big deal? It waters down the exclusionary rule and promotes ends-justifies-the-means-policing.

Factually in Strieff, a South Salt Lake City detective was conducting surveillance on a house where drug activity was occurring according to an anonymous tip. One day, the detective witnessed Strieff enter the residence and leave shortly thereafter. Strieff then walked to a nearby convenience store where the detective stopped him and began questioning him. After asking Strieff what he was doing at the house, the officer asked him for his identification. The officer then learned Strieff had an outstanding warrant. He then arrested Strieff and discovered a bag of meth and drug paraphernalia as part of his search incident to arrest.

Utah conceded the officer’s seizure of Strieff was illegal. Because the officer lacked reasonable articulable suspicion to stop Strieff, the remedy is suppression. Any evidence obtained after the illegal stop cannot be used against Strieff. Or, so we thought. If we follow the exclusionary rule, then this should be the result.

But the Court determined the evidence found by the officer was admissible against Strieff, because the officer learned Strieff had an outstanding warrant and then conducted a search. In Its holding, the majority used the three-factor test from Brown v. Illinois to reason the attenuation doctrine applies. These factors include: (1) the temporal proximity of the violation (how close in time did the discovery of evidence follow the unconstitutional conduct); (2) whether intervening circumstances were present (something occurred that was not related to the seizure); and (3) the purpose and flagrancy of the officer’s violation.

Even though the Court determined the first factor weighs in Strieff’s favor, It held the latter two outweigh the temporal proximity of the violation. Therefore, the illegal stop was sufficiently attenuated by Strieff’s outstanding warrant and the evidence discovered after his arrest is admissible. Whether an intervening circumstance was present and whether the officer’s conduct was flagrantly unlawful are two hotly contested issues that received scathing dissents. But for now, we are left with this decision from our nation’s highest court, which comes at a time when racial tensions are already in overdrive across the country, especially when dealing with the police. Conceding a stop by law enforcement was unlawful, but there is nothing an aggrieved citizen can do about it, does not sit well. This opinion may invite law enforcement to make pretextual stops (stops for little to no reason) just so they can inquire about criminal activity or if the person has an outstanding warrant.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is admitted to practice law in federal and state court. He was named a Rising Star by Super Lawyers; and was named a Top 40 Under 40 trial lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Organization. Criminal Defense Lawyers Minneapolis MN; Federal Drug Crimes Attorney St. Paul; and St. Paul MN Criminal Defense Lawyer.    

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