Key Takeaway

If the link between the illegal police action and evidence is attenuated, then the evidence is admissible. Attenuation is dependent on temporal proximity, intervening circumstances, and the flagrancy of the misconduct.

Utah v. Strieff

Utah v. Strieff

Utah v. Strieff

Utah v. Strieff

Court Syllabus:

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. 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.

(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.” But to ensure that those deterrence benefits are not outweighed by 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.

(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. 

(1) Three factors articulated in Brown v. Illinois lead to this conclusion. The first, “temporal proximity” between the initially unlawful stop and the search 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 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,” 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.

(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.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Thomas, joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Breyer, Alito

Dissent: Sotomayor, joined by Ginsburg

Dissent: Kagan, joined by Ginsburg

 

Utah v. Strieff

136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016)

(The Attenuation and Unconstitutional Investigatory Stop Case)

Facts:

This case began with an anonymous tip. In December 2006, someone called the South Salt Lake City police’s drug-tip line to report “narcotics activity” at a particular residence. Narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell investigated the tip. Over the course of about a week, Officer Fackrell conducted intermittent surveillance of the home. He observed visitors who left a few minutes after arriving at the house. These visits were sufficiently frequent to raise his suspicion that the occupants were dealing drugs.

One of those visitors was respondent Edward Strieff. Officer Fackrell observed Strieff exit the house and walk toward a nearby convenience store. In the store’s parking lot, Officer Fackrell detained Strieff, identified himself, and asked Strieff what he was doing at the residence.

As part of the stop, Officer Fackrell requested Strieff’s identification, and Strieff produced his Utah identification card. Officer Fackrell relayed Strieff’s information to a police dispatcher, who reported that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Officer Fackrell then arrested Strieff pursuant to that warrant. When Officer Fackrell searched Strieff incident to the arrest, he discovered a baggie of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

Question:

Whether this attenuation doctrine applies when an officer makes an unconstitutional investigatory stop; learns during that stop that the suspect is subject to a valid arrest warrant; and proceeds to arrest the suspect and seize incriminating evidence during a search incident to that arrest.        

Reasoning:

Under the Court’s precedents, 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,” the so-called “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

We have accordingly recognized several exceptions to the rule. First, the independent source doctrine allows trial courts to admit evidence obtained in an unlawful search if officers independently acquired it from a separate, independent source. Second, the inevitable discovery doctrine allows for the admission of evidence that would have been discovered even without the unconstitutional source. Third, and at issue here, is the attenuation doctrine: Evidence is admissible when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance, so that “the interest protected by the constitutional guarantee that has been violated would not be served by suppression of the evidence obtained.”

Three factors guide our analysis. First, we look to the “temporal proximity” between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of evidence to determine how closely the discovery of evidence followed the unconstitutional search. Second, we consider “the presence of intervening circumstances.” Third, and “particularly” significant, we examine “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.” In evaluating these factors, we assume without deciding (because the State conceded the point) that Officer Fackrell lacked reasonable suspicion to initially stop Strieff. And, because we ultimately conclude that the warrant breaks the causal chain, we also have no need to decide whether the warrant’s existence alone would make the initial stop constitutional even if Officer Fackrell was unaware of its existence.

The first factor, temporal proximity between the initially unlawful stop and the search, favors suppressing the evidence. Officer Fackrell discovered drug contraband on Strieff’s person only minutes after the illegal stop. As the Court explained in Brown, such a short time interval counsels in favor of suppression; there, we found that the confession should be suppressed, relying in part on the “less than two hours” that separated the unconstitutional arrest and the confession.

In contrast, the second factor, the presence of intervening circumstances, strongly favors the State. In a prior case, this Court deemed the evidence admissible notwithstanding the illegal search because the information supporting the warrant was “wholly unconnected with the [arguably illegal] entry and was known to the agents well before the initial entry.” In this case, the warrant was valid, it predated Officer Fackrell’s investigation, and it was entirely unconnected with the stop. And once Officer Fackrell discovered the warrant, he had an obligation to arrest Strieff.

Finally, the third factor, “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct,” also strongly favors the State. The third factor of the attenuation doctrine favors exclusion only when the police misconduct is most in need of deterrence—that is, when it is purposeful or flagrant.

Officer Fackrell was at most negligent. In stopping Strieff, Officer Fackrell made two good-faith mistakes. First, he had not observed what time Strieff entered the suspected drug house, so he did not know how long Strieff had been there. Officer Fackrell thus lacked a sufficient basis to conclude that Strieff was a short-term visitor who may have been consummating a drug transaction. Second, because he lacked confirmation that Strieff was a short-term visitor, Officer Fackrell should have asked Strieff whether he would speak with him, instead of demanding that Strieff do so. Officer Fackrell’s stated purpose was to “find out what was going on [in] the house.” Nothing prevented him from approaching Strieff simply to ask.

While Officer Fackrell’s decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful. The officer’s decision to run the warrant check was a “negligibly burdensome precautio[n]” for officer safety. And Officer Fackrell’s actual search of Strieff was a lawful search incident to arrest.

Moreover, there is no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct.

Holding:

The evidence the officer seized as part of the search incident to arrest is admissible because the officer’s discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized incident to arrest.

We hold that the evidence discovered on Strieff’s person was admissible because the unlawful stop was sufficiently attenuated by the pre-existing arrest warrant. Although the illegal stop was close in time to Strieff’s arrest, that consideration is outweighed by two factors supporting the State. The outstanding arrest warrant for Strieff’s arrest is a critical intervening circumstance that is wholly independent of the illegal stop. The discovery of that warrant broke the causal chain between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of evidence by compelling Officer Fackrell to arrest Strieff. And, it is especially significant that there is no evidence that Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct.