On June 20, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided on the case of Utah v. Strieff, 579 US__2016, ruling in favor of Utah. The case marked a vital point in determining when the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rule is applicable.
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Searches and Seizures and the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution is often well known as the ‘search and seizure' amendment. It states the terms which allow police or government to take and use evidence against someone in court.
The actual text of the Fourth Amendment reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
It's quite a mouthful, and like most historical documents, the Fourth Amendment can interpreted in different ways. In most cases, though, the Fourth Amendment is straightforward enough. People tend to interpret it as a clause which limits the power of the police against ordinary citizens.
Under the Fourth Amendment, people are protected from searches or seizures without a detailed warrant issued by a judge, except for a handful of extenuating circumstances. To gain a warrant, a police officer must present probable cause — another one of those terms which throw people off. If you happen to watch police procedurals, you might notice that what you see on television does nothing to clear up what exactly probable cause is.
In the most straightforward terms, probable cause is often described as circumstances or evidence strong enough to convince a ‘prudent and cautious person' that something is probably true. Or in the case of the Fourth Amendment, convince them that there is evidence of a crime committed; basically, if there is enough suspicious activity to convince an average, reasonable person that something is true.
The Exclusionary Rule
The exclusionary rule, on the other hand, is a specific add-on to the Fourth Amendment of what happens if the terms of the Fourth Amendment are violated.
In the case that a police officer searches and seizes without a warrant, probable cause, or some sort of extenuating circumstance, the search would be considered an illegal search. This can include anything from barging into someone's house or car to searching their person.
If a search is deemed illegal, the exclusionary rule mandates that all evidence found as a result of that illegal search is deemed inadmissible in court. The fancy term often used here is fruit of the poisonous tree — the tree being the illegal search and the fruits being everything that comes from the illegal search.
For instance, let's say an officer conducts an illegal search on a person and finds evidence which completely proves that the person committed a crime. Or, maybe the officer finds something which, later down the road, leads to definite evidence of a crime. According to the exclusionary rule, even if the evidence proves a crime was committed, it cannot be used in court.
As a result, the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule are considered vital in protecting common people from overreaching law enforcement. The consequences of an illegal search also acts as a deterrent to prevent police officers from overexerting their power.
Utah v. Streiff — The Basics
In December of 2016, the police of South Salt Lake, Utah began carrying out surveillance on a house after receiving an anonymous tip that drugs were being sold out of the house. Later into the surveillance, the police saw the respondent Edward Strieff entering and leaving the house. As Strieff left the house, Detective Douglas Fackrell stopped Strieff for questioning and requested Strieff's identification. After discovering that Strieff had an outstanding warrant. Fackrell arrested Strieff and then found him in possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.
The district court that oversaw Strieff's case ruled that although Fackrell did not have probable cause to question Strieff in what is officially called an investigatory stop, the evidence was found during a lawful search based on an outstanding warrant for Strieff. The Utah Court of Appeals upheld the district court's decision.
However, the Utah Supreme Court reversed the ruling, declaring that the evidence should have been suppressed on the account that discovering the outstanding warrant was a direct result of the unlawful investigatory stop. Therefore, even though the outstanding warrant was legal, it was only discovered as a result of an illegal search, making the Strieff's arrest and the drugs found on his person both fruits of the poisonous tree.
Upon this reversal, the state of Utah appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court.
Utah v. Strieff in the US Supreme Court
The question being raised in the case of Utah v. Strieff is whether or not evidence found during a legal arrest from an outstanding warrant should be considered inadmissible if the warrant was only discovered as a result of an unlawful investigatory stop.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Utah, the petitioner, citing that the link between the outstanding warrant and the unlawful investigatory stop is not strong enough to make a case for the exclusionary rule. The majority believed the drug evidence found on Strieff came directly from a lawful arrest based on a valid, already standing arrest warrant. The court held that in circumstances where a valid warrant is discovered in an illegal investigatory stop, the existence of the valid warrant weakens the connection between the illegal stop and the discovered evidence. The evidence is removed enough from the illegal stop for it to not be considered fruit of the poisoned tree.
Writing in representation of majority in the case, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said, “the discovery of a valid arrest warrant was a sufficient intervening event to break the causal chain between the unlawful stop and the discovery of drug-related evidence on Strieff's person.”
The dissenting judges in this case were Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Ginsburg. They argued that the evidence should be inadmissible. In her dissenting statement, Justice Sotomayor argued that the exclusionary rule was put in place to prevent police officers from using unconstitutional conduct with an agenda to gain further evidence, as was the case in Utah v. Strieff. All three dissenting judges agreed that the discovery of the drug evidence and the unconstitutional investigative stop were too closely connected, and the outstanding warrant was not substantial enough to act as a mitigating factor. For those reasons, Justices Sotomayor, Ginsberg, and Kagan all maintained that the evidence found should be held to the exclusionary rule and ruled inadmissible in court because the evidence is a direct result of an unconstitutional investigatory stop.
So What Does Utah v. Strieff Mean for the Fourth Amendment?
Like many other Supreme Court cases, Utah v. Strieff once again tests the precarious balance between individual rights and governmental power. It raises the question of how much power is too much. The ruling on Utah v. Strieff will be used as a precedent for similar cases in the future. Precedent cases have a large influence on future Supreme Court cases.
Justice Sotomayor, in her dissenting opinion, suggested the majority ruling on Utah v. Strieff could “corrode all our civil liberties.” Justice Ginsburg, on the other hand, expressed her concern that the ruling on the case would give “unfortunate incentives to the police.” The ruling on Utah v. Strieff sets a precedent. Courts can now use the support of the Utah v. Strieff decision to admit evidence discovered in the same manner Detective Fackrell discovered evidence on Strieff.
What this means for individual people is that if evidence is found on them in a manner similar or the same as in Strieff's case, the evidence will most likely be admissible in court. On a broader scale, police may carry out an illegal investigatory stop, knowing that if they find an outstanding warrant and then discover incriminating evidence, that the evidence will be kept based on the results of Utah v. Strieff.
Whether or not you believe the results of Utah v. Strieff are infringing on individual rights and giving too much power to law enforcement, there is still the salient fact that the Supreme Court's decision gives more power to law enforcement. They can now use evidence that before, might not have been admissible in court.
More than anything, though, this case highlights the importance of having quality legal representation. As decisions like Utah v. Strieff create more disadvantages for individuals facing criminal charges, the importance of a good defense grows. A competent defense lawyer can move to suppress any evidence that can possibly be suppressed, and come up with good arguments to advocate for why a piece of evidence should be inadmissible. Additionally, they will be able to look at what evidence remains admissible and put together the best defense strategy possible to advocate for their client's innocence.
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