Introduction to the Effect of Utah v. Strieff on Fourth Amendment Rights

introduction to 4th amendment rightsThe fourth amendment of the United States constitution, which has been applied to the individual state constitutions as well, protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons, houses, papers, and affects.[i] The fourth amendment also states that a search or seizure cannot be performed without a valid warrant or consent of the individual.[ii] The ability for law enforcement officers to search a person’s car must also be accompanied by either a search warrant, or it must be following a valid stop and arrest of the driver.[iii] In a recent Supreme Court decision, Utah v. Strieff, the Court decided that it was now appropriate for an officer to search a car after the officer has illegally stopped the car, so long as the driver had a warrant out for his arrest.[iv] This decision drastically changes the law in this area as it allows for a search after an unlawful arrest, which up until this decision was illegal.

The Facts of Utah v. Strieff

The facts of the case, Utah v. Strieff, are not un-similar to many cases before it but the results are certainly different. Here, a narcotics officer while acting on an anonymous tip began to place surveillance on a suspected drug location.[v] After about a week of watching the suspected drug location, the officer viewed frequent visitors and became suspicious of a particular individual: Strieff.[vi] One day, the officer pulled over Strieff in a parking lot close to the suspected drug location based off his suspicions and proceeded to ask Strieff about why he was at the building.[vii] After questioning Strieff, the officer asked Strieff for his driver’s license.[viii] Once the officer checked Strieff’s information, he realized that Strieff had a warrant for his arrested based off a traffic violation.[ix] After the officer returned to Strieff’s vehicle, he proceeded to search the vehicle and found a bag of methamphetamine and other drug paraphernalia. Subsequently, Strieff was charged for these possessions, but naturally the defense counsel for Strieff moved to suppress the evidence as a product of an illegal stop. Ordinarily the court would agree that this evidence would be product of an illegal stop and thus not admissible in court – but this court decided the opposite, which is shocking considering the past decisions in this area.

Probable Cause for Traffic Stops and Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine

It is important to note here that, before this decision, an officer was not permitted to pull over a person unless they have probable cause.[x] If an officer fails to use probable cause to pull a person over, as the officer in the Strieff case did, than any evidence obtained from a search will be considered fruit of the poisonous tree.[xi]

fourth amendment rights and the fruit of the poisonous treeProbable cause is a simple concept. All it means is that the officer must have reliable information to support a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime – and thus being eligible to be pulled over for a traffic stop.[xii] The Supreme Court has determined many times that a police officer does not have probable cause to pull a driver over if the police officer goes off his gut or has a reasonable suspicion. Neither of those actually rise to the standard that probable cause has, but nonetheless, police officers pull over drivers based off their gut or reasonable suspicion. Now, if the police officer pulls over a driver in this manner and just runs his driver’s license and then sends him on his way – then there is no real harm to the driver, or at least no major harm. However, if the police officer had arrested that man for say a warrant – like in the Strieff case – then any evidence obtained after that arrest could not be used in court because the initial stop of the driver by the officer was NOT based off probable cause.

Any evidence that is obtained after an unlawful stop, a stop that is not based off probable cause, will be considered fruit of the poisonous tree.[xiii] This doctrine holds that evidence gathered through illegally obtained information must be excluded from trial.[xiv] For example, if an illegal interrogation leads to the discovery of physical evidence, both the interrogation and the physical evidence may be excluded because of the exclusionary rule.[xv] An officer pulling over a driver not based upon probable cause would also result in illegally obtaining evidence if the driver’s car is searched. The exclusionary rule prevents the government from using most evidence gathered in violation of the United States Constitution.[xvi] This rule thus encompasses the illegally obtained evidence from illegal traffic stops. So, in the case Utah v. Strieff, the court should have rejected the admittance of the bag of methamphetamine and other drug paraphernalia that was found by the officer is Strieff’s car – but the Court decided to allow this evidence in despite the case law history that would reject this illegally obtained evidence.

Understanding the Decision of Utah v. Strieff

Effect of Utah v. Strieff on Fourth Amendment RightsBased off the information above regarding the standards law enforcement officers must abide by before performing a traffic stop, and the inadmissibility of illegally obtained evidence – especially from an illegal traffic stop, one would think that the case would be a open and closed situation. Strieff was pulled over by law enforcement based off the officer’s gut feeling to a situation (which is not probable cause, even if the gut feeling is accurate) and had his car searched, which presented with drug paraphernalia. Ordinarily this type of stop would be considered illegal, and any evidence obtained subsequent to the stop – i.e. the drug paraphernalia – would be inadmissible in court. So, why did the Supreme Court decide that this scenario was different than all the case law before it?
Well, the court first of all determined that there was no obvious police misconduct in this matter.[xvii] The court also determined that the police officer discovered a valid, pre-existing and untainted warrant for Strieff’s arrest, and because the officer arrested Strieff pursuant to that warrant and then seized the evidence – there was no issue.[xviii] The Supreme Court did yield to say that the officer’s initial stop of Strieff was unconstitutional, but because of the discovery of the warrant there was a thin connection between the stop and the evidence obtained.[xix] For this reason, the evidence that was obtained after the unconstitutional was nonetheless admitted into court and used against Strieff.

The Effects of Strieff in Future Cases and What to Expect

This decision is going to have some pretty heavy consequences on future cases that have similar fact patterns. Even though the court had a specific reason for ruling in the matter that they did, through the use of the attenuation doctrine (also known as the fruit of the poisionus tree doctrine) and so this scenario may or may not be repeated in future cases. It will really depend on the facts of the case.

Effects of Strieff on fourth amendment rightsThe Court relied on attenuation doctrine for the basis of their decision. The attenuation doctrine functions in cases where the evidence that law enforcement found is not a direct consequence of their illegal conduct but rather is instead derived from the exploitation of the initial illegality.[xx] One factor that the Court looks at very closely is how removed the evidence was from the illegal act.[xxi] If the evidence obtained subsequently to the illegal act was not a direct result of the illegal act, the Court may determine to still allow the evidence to come in – which is what the Supreme Court decided in this case. Even though the law enforcement officer pulled over Strieff in an illegal manner, he found the drug paraphernalia after arresting Strieff because of the warrant out of his arrest. Subsequent to the arrest, the officer found the drug paraphernalia. Arguably, the officer would have never found the drug paraphernalia if he did not illegally stop Strieff, but the Court just viewed this illegal stop as something minor.

So, the Court determined that the evidence presented was removed enough from the illegal stop that suppressing the evidence would not be appropriate. After breaking down this decision, it appears as though it was not as ground breaking as many people made it out to be – but there will be an affect on future cases with similar scenarios. Once a decision has been made in an area, even if the facts of a future case are not so similar – the prosecutor will likely still find a way to tie the two cases together and will likely win. Once the door has been opened like it has been here, the affect it will have on future cases will not be the same until a future ruling comes to change the process again. Contact us for further information about your fourth amendment rights.

Conclusion to the Effect of Utah v. Strieff on Fourth Amendment Rights

Based upon the information presented above, the Strieff case will have a great affect on the Fourth Amendment rights of the United States citizens. Even though the Court determined that the drug paraphernalia found in Strieff’s car was far enough removed from the illegal stop performed by the officer, this decision still has a great effect on the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens. For starters, this decision opens the door for future cases of illegal traffic stops to produce evidence that would have ordinarily been suppressed by the courts simply because the driver has a warrant out for his arrest – that the officer only discovered because he pulled the driver over illegally in the first place. While this is not going to be the case for each and every similar scenario, it certainly provides precedent for this situation to repeat in the future.

[i] See Fourth Amendment Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute (Accessed July 30, 2016) https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/fourth_amendment

[ii] Id.

[iii] See Car Searches by Police Following a Valid Stop NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 30, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/car-searches-following-police-stop.html

[iv] See Terrence P. Dwyer, Esq. The Utah v. Strieff decision and the limits of the exclusionary rule

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] See Probable Cause and DUIs: 5 Things to Know NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 30, 2016) http://dui.drivinglaws.org/resources/driving-under-influence/probable-cause-why-police-stop-you.htm

[xi] See Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Cornell University law School Legal Information Institute (Accessed July 30, 2016) https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/fruit_of_the_poisonous_tree

[xii] See Probable Cause and DUIs: 5 Things to Know NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed July 30, 2016) http://dui.drivinglaws.org/resources/driving-under-influence/probable-cause-why-police-stop-you.htm

[xiii] See Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Cornell University law School Legal Information Institute (Accessed July 30, 2016) https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/fruit_of_the_poisonous_tree

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] See Exclusionary Rule Cornell University law School Legal Information Institute (Accessed July 30, 2016) https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/exclusionary_rule

[xvii] See Utah v. Strieff SCOTUS Blog (Accessed June 29, 2016) http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/utah-v-strieff/

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] See Sherry F. Colb A Potential Landmine in Waiting in Utah v. Strieff Legal Analysis and Commentary from Justia (Published June 28, 2016) https://verdict.justia.com/2016/06/28/potential-landmine-waiting-utah-v-strieff

[xxi] Id.