Illegal Police Stops Okay if Outstanding Warrant

Can evidence obtained through an illegal police stop be used against you in court?  The answer to that question has changed since the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided Utah v. Strieff. Contact a Charleston Criminal Defense Lawyer to learn more.

The police conducted an unlawful stop on the defendant who was walking down the street in Utah after he left a suspected drug house.  Normally as an illegal police stop this would present a defense to the evidence discovered because of the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine that was created to deter future police violations of your constitutional rights.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court has now created an exception that justifies such illegal practices if the person stopped illegally has an outstanding warrant. See Utah v. Strieff.

What Happened?

After an anonymous tip about drug activity at a residence, police conducted surveillance over the course of a week.  During that investigation they saw numerous people arrive and leave within minutes.  Edward Strieff was one of those visitors and police stopped him on the street, not because they had reasonable suspicion that he committed a crime but to find out what was going on inside the house.  The problem was the stop was an illegal police stop.  Even the State conceded that the stop was an illegal police stop and in violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizures.

Problems arose for Strieff when during the illegal police stop, police learned that Strieff had an active warrant (unpaid parking ticket) for his arrest.  Based on that outstanding warrant, Strieff was arrested, searched, and police found meth and drug paraphernalia on his person.  As a result he was charged with possession of illegal drugs.

How the Law has Changed

Our courts have held that evidence obtained through unlawful police action should be suppressed absent an exception.  The reasoning for this is that it will deter police from committing further constitutional violations.  It’s called fruit of the poisonous tree.  The issue in this case was whether the drug evidence had to be excluded from trial because it was obtained by the unlawful seizure of the defendant.  The State Supreme Court in Utah followed this concept and excluded the evidence in Strieff’s trial.

Unfortunately for Strieff, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the evidence was admissible because once police learned there was an outstanding warrant, the search was incident to the arrest and therefore lawful.  The based its decision on the attenuation doctrine which provides that evidence is admissible when the connection between the unconstitutional police conduct (illegal police stop) and the evidence is to remote or has been interrupted by an intervening circumstance.  Applying the attenuation doctrine, the court applies three factors:

  1. Temporal proximity: the court looks to the temporal proximity between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence to determine the how close the discovery of the evidence followed the unconstitutional search;
  2. Presence of intervening circumstances;
  3. The purpose and flagrancy of the misconduct by police.

The court held that the drug evidence was admissible because the illegal police stop was sufficiently attenuated by the outstanding warrant.  Despite the unlawful stop being close in time to the arrest, the court concluded that the later two factors outweighed the temporal proximity.  The outstanding warrant was a critical intervening circumstance that was independent from the stop.  The court also went on to say that the unlawful stop was not flagrant unlawful police misconduct.

This decision is a major blow to supporters of the 4th Amendment and it appears that the fight may not be over as a scathing dissent by Justice Sotomayor who said:

This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens. Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more.

The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal. … If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons. This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.”

The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or “driving [your] pickup truck . . . with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter . . . without [your] seatbelt fastened.” At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.” Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the “civil death” of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check. And, of course, if you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you “arrestable on sight” in the future.

Charleston Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have an issue from an illegal police stop call an experienced and trusted Charleston drug crimes lawyer at the Dale Savage Law Firm today for a free consultation (843) 530-7813.

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