Release Date:  June 20, 2016
Contact:  Kent S. Scheidegger
(916) 446-0345

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In a decision announced today, the U. S. Supreme Court has overturned a Utah Supreme Court ruling which held that evidence obtained in a police search must be suppressed under the federal exclusionary rule. The issue in the case of Utah v. Strieff was whether the Fourth Amendment requires that valid evidence discovered during a lawful arrest with a warrant must be suppressed because the officer mistakenly thought he had enough reasonable suspicion to detain the suspect.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had joined the case to argue that nothing in the Constitution's Fourth Amendment requires that valid evidence must be excluded from trial because a police officer made an honest mistake leading up to the search of a suspect who had warrant out for his arrest.

In the Court's 5-3 majority opinion, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas writes, "We hold that the evidence Officer Fackrell seized as part of his search incident to arrest is admissible because the discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized from Strieff incident to arrest."

The case involves a December 2006 incident after Salt Lake City narcotics Detective Doug Fackrell, an 18-year law enforcement veteran with specialized drug enforcement training, responded to an anonymous tip reporting narcotics activity at a house in South Salt Lake. During surveillance of the house, Detective Fackrell observed numerous short-term visitors consistent with drug activity.

After Detective Fackrell observed Strieff leave the house on foot, he followed him for about a block before stopping him. A check of Strieff's identification revealed that there was a warrant for his arrest. In a search incident to the arrest, the Detective found methamphetamine, a glass pipe used to smoke the drug, and a small plastic scale with white residue in Strieff's possession.

At trial, Strieff was charged with possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. He moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was the fruit of an unlawful investigatory stop. The prosecutor agreed that the facts available to Detective Fackrell at the time of the stop did not "quite meet the level of reasonable suspicion under" Terry v. Ohio, but he argued that under existing precedent the evidence should be admitted because the arrest and search were based on the warrant, not on the suspicion leading to the initial stop.

The state trial court agreed, concluding that Fackrell's initial stop "was not a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment" nor did he exploit "the initial unlawful detention to search" Strieff since he had no prior knowledge of the arrest warrant. With his motion to suppress denied, Strieff pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia and attempted possession of a controlled substance.

On appeal, Strieff lost a 2-1 decision in the state appellate court which held that the stop was not "in knowing or obvious disregard of constitutional limitations." The court agreed that the pre-existing warrant was an intervening circumstance that "sufficiently attenuated" the taint of the stop.

The Utah Supreme Court reversed that decision in a ruling which acknowledged that Strieff was lawfully arrested and lawfully searched incident to arrest, but because the stop was unlawful, the evidence should have been excluded.

The state high court held that the attenuation exception does not apply when the intervening event is based on a warrant, applying only when the event involves "a defendant's independent acts of free will," such as a confession.

When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Utah's appeal, CJLF joined the case. In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, the Foundation argued that in this case the question of "reasonable suspicion" was a close one, and Detective Fackrell reasonably believed he had met the requirement. While the question before the Court must include the attenuation analysis engaged in by the Utah courts, it also fairly includes the question of whether suppression of evidence should be the consequence of an investigatory stop that is later found to be unlawful but was not clearly so at the time. There is no violation of the Fourth Amendment in this case that justifies the extreme remedy of suppressing evidence.

"Criminal trials should be about whether the defendant is guilty, and all reliable evidence should be considered on that question. Complaints about the conduct of the police should be addressed in other ways, not by suppressing valid evidence," said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. "Today's decision is an important step in the right direction," he added.

CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.
The Utah v. Strieff brief is available on our website at: