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The judge’s gavel sounds and the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution is found guilty. . .again. . .

The recent decision of Utah v. Strieff furthers the Court’s history of siding with the Government rather than the individual.

Heather TaborBY: Heather Tabor, Guest Contributor

The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to determine how the Attenuation Doctrine applies when an unconstitutional detention leads to the discovery of a valid arrest warrant.

The events of Utah v. Strieff began in December 2006, when an anonymous tip was reported to the South Salt Lake City Police’s drug-tip line to report “narcotics activity” at a particular home.  Narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell investigated the tip by conducting intermittent surveillance of the home for approximately a week.  While observing the home, Officer Fackrell noticed frequent traffic through the home and, for those who visited the home, visits that lasted mere minutes. These frequent short visits, along with the anonymous tip, raised Officer Fackrell’s suspicion that the occupants of the home in question were conducting illegal drug activities from within their home.

During that week, Officer Fackrell observed Edward Strieff, the respondent, leave the house in question and walk toward a local convenience store.  Once in the store’s parking lot, Officer Fackrell detained Strieff, identified himself, and asked Strieff what he was doing at the residence.  As a part of the stop, Officer Fackrell requested Strieff’s identification, relayed Strieff’s information to a police dispatcher, and was then informed of an outstanding arrest warrant for Strieff due to a traffic violation.  Pursuant to the arrest warrant, Officer Fackrell arrested Strieff and, upon search incident to the arrest, discovered a baggie of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

Strieff was subsequently charged with unlawful possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.  Strieff moved to suppress the evidence gathered by Officer Fackrell because it was the result of an unlawful investigatory stop.  At the suppression hearing, the prosecutor argued that while Officer Fackrell lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop, the evidence should not be suppressed due to the attenuation provided by the valid arrest warrant.  The trial court decided to admit the evidence because it determined the presence of a valid arrest warrant was an “extraordinary intervening circumstance” (quoting from United States v. Simpson).  The court also found a lack of flagrant misconduct by Officer Fackrell who, at the time, had been investigating a suspected drug house.  The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the trial court.  However, the Utah Supreme Court reversed and held the evidence was inadmissible because, according to the court, only “a voluntary act of a defendant’s free will” sufficiently breaks the connection between an illegal search and the discovery of evidence.

The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to determine how the Attenuation Doctrine applies when an unconstitutional detention leads to the discovery of a valid arrest warrant.

As with nearly every law, there are exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s protections.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.  As with nearly every law, there are exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s protections. Over a century later, the “Exclusionary Rule” was introduced in Weeks v. United States.  Here, the Court ruled that evidence obtained by federal officials in violation of the Fourth Amendment may be excluded from the trial.  This doctrine was later extended to state officials in 1961– after the ruling in Mapp v. Ohio.  The rule appeared to solidify the protection of the American public from any potential Fourth Amendment abuse from governmental officials.  Almost immediately, however, the Exclusionary Rule and, through said rule, the Fourth Amendment were on trial.

As a result of subsequent cases, courts were required to recognize several exceptions to the Exclusionary Rule.  Such exceptions were created because, while the Exclusionary Rule was created to deter police misconduct, the rule could not be upheld when the costs of excluding evidence outweighed its deterrent benefits.  Examples of such exceptions include the Good Faith exception, the Independent Source exception, the Inevitable Discovery exception, and the Attenuation Doctrine exception.

The Good Faith exception, illustrated in cases such as United States v. Leon, allows admission of evidence if the officers who obtained the evidence had reasonable, or good faith, belief that they were acting under valid legal authority.  The Independent Source exception, illustrated in cases such as Murray v. United States, allows the admission of evidence that was initially discovered during an unlawful search but, subsequently, was obtained legally and independent of the initial illegal interaction.  The Inevitable Discovery exception, illustrated in cases such as Nix v. Williams, allows the admission of evidence, even if it was initially discovered in violation of the Fourth Amendment, if the evidence would have inevitably been discovered by government officials.

The last of the listed exceptions to the Exclusionary Rule, known as the Attenuation Doctrine, is illustrated in cases such as Hudson v. Michigan.  This doctrine allows the admission of evidence when the connection between the unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence obtained appears to the court to be remote or has, in some way, been interrupted so that “the interest protected by the constitutional guarantee that has been violated would not be served by suppression of the evidence obtained.”  This last exception of the Exclusionary Rule was the exception at issue in the case of Utah v. Strieff.

“This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants- even if you are doing nothing wrong.”

In the majority opinion, written by Justice Thomas, the Court used factors established in Brown v. Illinois to guide their analysis including: “temporal proximity”, “the presence of intervening circumstances,” and “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.”  “Temporal proximity” is a factor used to determine if the time between the initial illegal action and the discovery of legitimate evidence can become so attenuated as to admit the evidence despite the initial illegal action.  The “presence of intervening circumstances” is a factor that can be used to determine if there were any valid means used between the initial illegal action and the discovery of legitimate evidence that would make the initial illegality irrelevant in the admission of the evidence.  The “purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct” is a factor that the court can used to to determine, to the best of the Court’s ability, whether or not the officer deliberately violated an individual’s right prior to arrest.

The Court determined that the first factor, “temporal proximity,” favored suppression of the evidence because “substantial time” had not elapsed between the unlawful act and the obtaining of evidence by Officer Fackrell.  The Court determined that the second factor, “the presence of intervening circumstances,” favored admission of the evidence because the warrant was valid, it predated Officer Fackrell’s investigation, and the warrant was entirely unconnected with Officer Fackrell’s stop.  The Court determined that the last of the factors, “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct,” favored admission of the evidence for a variety of reasons and determined that, at most, Officer Fackrell had been negligent in making two “good-faith” mistakes.  Upon application of the factors provided by Brown, the Court held that the evidence discovered on Strieff’s person was admissible because the unlawful stop was sufficiently attenuated by the pre-existing arrest warrant.

[Do] not pretend that countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated” because, until their voices matter too, the justice system will continue to be anything but.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sotomayor championed the Exclusionary Rule by writing, “Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: this case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrant-even if you are doing nothing wrong.”  Citing multiple cases Sotomayor explored the idea that where illegal conduct by an officer uncovers illegal conduct by a civilian, it is tempting to forgive the officer.  However, two wrongs do not make a right in the justice system.  Sotomayor reasoned that, by allowing such unlawful stops, the Court gives officers reason to treat American citizens in an arbitrary manner.  Such treatment, she declared, may also lead to the treatment of members of certain communities as second-class citizens.

Few Americans realize that as long as an officer can provide justification for a stop, there is precedent established for officers to stop anyone for a variety of reasons.  Justice Sotomayor explained that the justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you of breaking the law, however, may include a variety of factors including your ethnicity, where you live, what you were wearing, and how you behaved when approached.  Citing The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, Sotomayor reflected that, while the defendant in this case was white, people of color represent a disproportionate amount of victims that face this type of scrutiny.  She noted that, “for generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’—instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”  She concluded by insisting the Court not pretend that countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated” because, until their voices matter too, the justice system will continue to be anything but.

The government that, as Abraham Lincoln once said, was made “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is an ever changing entity. Utah v. Strieff proposes a question, not only to those who choose to take the time to read it but, to the American people as a whole.  In modern day American, who holds the government accountable?  If the government which was made of the people, by the people, and for the people do not protect the rights of the people, who will?  Since Strieff represents another step down a potentially slippery slope, that is a question that every American should be asking.