SCOTUS Rules Certain Evidence Admissible After Illegal Detention


UTAH v. STRIEFF

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF UTAH No. 14–1373.

Argued February 22, 2016—Decided June 20, 2016

Narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell conducted surveillance on a South Salt Lake City residence based on an anonymous tip about drug activity. The number of people he observed making brief visits to the house over the course of a week made him suspicious that the occupants were dealing drugs. After observing respondent Edward Strieff leave the residence, Officer Fackrell detained Strieff at a nearby parking lot, identifying himself and asking Strieff what he was doing at the house. He then requested Strieff’s identification and relayed the information to a police dispatcher, who informed him that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Officer Fackrell arrested Strieff, searched him, and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Strieff moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was derived from an unlawful investigatory stop. The trial court denied the motion, and the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed. The Utah Supreme Court reversed, however, and ordered the evidence suppressed.

Held: The evidence Officer Fackrell seized incident to Strieff’s arrest is admissible based on an application of the attenuation factors from Brown v. Illinois, 422 U. S. 590. In this case, there was no flagrant police misconduct. Therefore, Officer Fackrell’s discovery of a valid, pre-existing, and untainted arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unconstitutional investigatory stop and the evidence seized incident to a lawful arrest. Pp. 4–10. (a) As the primary judicial remedy for deterring Fourth Amendment violations, the exclusionary rule encompasses both the “primary evidence obtained as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure” and, relevant here, “evidence later discovered and found to be derivative of an illegality.” Segura v. United States, 468 U. S. 796, 804. But to ensure that those deterrence benefits are not outweighed by 2 UTAH v. STRIEFF Syllabus the rule’s substantial social costs, there are several exceptions to the rule. One exception is the attenuation doctrine, which provides for admissibility when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is sufficiently remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance. See Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U. S. 586, 593. Pp. 4–5. (b) As a threshold matter, the attenuation doctrine is not limited to the defendant’s independent acts.

The doctrine therefore applies here, where the intervening circumstance is the discovery of a valid, pre-existing, and untainted arrest warrant. Assuming, without deciding, that Officer Fackrell lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Strieff initially, the discovery of that arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized from Strieff incident to his arrest. Pp. 5–10. (1) Three factors articulated in Brown v. Illinois, 422 U. S. 590, lead to this conclusion. The first, “temporal proximity” between the initially unlawful stop and the search, id., at 603, favors suppressing the evidence. Officer Fackrell discovered drug contraband on Strieff only minutes after the illegal stop. In contrast, the second factor, “the presence of intervening circumstances, id., at 603–604, strongly favors the State. The existence of a valid warrant, predating the investigation and entirely unconnected with the stop, favors finding sufficient attenuation between the unlawful conduct and the discovery of evidence.

That warrant authorized Officer Fackrell to arrest Strieff, and once the arrest was authorized, his search of Strieff incident to that arrest was undisputedly lawful. The third factor, “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct,” id., at 604, also strongly favors the State. Officer Fackrell was at most negligent, but his errors in judgment hardly rise to a purposeful or flagrant violation of Strieff’s Fourth Amendment rights. After the unlawful stop, his conduct was lawful, and there is no indication that the stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct. Pp. 6–9. (2) Strieff’s counterarguments are unpersuasive. First, neither Officer Fackrell’s purpose nor the flagrancy of the violation rises to a level of misconduct warranting suppression. Officer Fackrell’s purpose was not to conduct a suspicionless fishing expedition but was to gather information about activity inside a house whose occupants were legitimately suspected of dealing drugs. Strieff conflates the standard for an illegal stop with the standard for flagrancy, which requires more than the mere absence of proper cause. Second, it is unlikely that the prevalence of outstanding warrants will lead to dragnet searches by police. Such misconduct would expose police to civil liability and, in any event, is already accounted for by Brown’s “purpose and flagrancy” factor. Pp. 9–10.

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