Illegal Searches and Outstanding Warrants

The United States Supreme Court can overrule all other courts including Florida courts. On June 20, 2016, they said if a police officer stops you illegally and you have an outstanding warrant for which you are arrested, the evidence (in this case drugs) they find on you can be used against you on the new charge. So, not only do you need to deal with the outstanding warrant, but you will also need to deal with the new criminal charge.

The Fourth Amendment provides “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . ..” Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2060. The meaning of this right after Utah v. Strieff was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States on June 20, 2016, is questioned by some. Does this ruling erode citizens’ right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures?

The ruling in Utah v. Strieff, and the Supreme Court of the United States’ reasoning behind it, does not erode citizens’ right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Even when a search or seizure is found to be unconstitutional, there are exceptions that apply to the admissibility of subsequent evidence obtained.

After receiving an anonymous tip about drug activity, Detective Douglas Fackrell conducted surveillance for a week on a South Lake City residence. Id. at 2056. Observing multiple people making brief visits made his suspicious that the occupants were dealing drugs. Id. at 2059.  Fackrell observed the Respondent Edward Strieff leave the residence and performed and subsequently detained Strieff at a nearby parking lot, identified himself and asked Strieff what he was doing. Id. at 2060. After asking for identification and calling it in to dispatch, Fackrell became aware of an outstanding arrest warrant for Strieff. Id. This was the most important fact of Fackrell’s encounter with Strieff. Due to the outstanding arrest warrant, Strieff was arrested; a search incident to arrest was performed and methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia were found. Id.

Strieff moved to suppress the evidence arguing that it was derived from an unlawful investigatory stop. Id. Although the trial court and appellate court denied the motion, the Utah Supreme Court reversed and ordered the evidence to be suppressed. Id. The Supreme Court of the United States reviewed the case on certiorari and held the evidence Officer Fackrell seized incident to the arrest of Strieff was admissible based on the attenuation factors from Brown v. Illisnois, 422 U.S. 590. Id. At 2062. Discovery of the valid, pre-existing, and untainted arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unconstitutional investigatory stop and the evidence seized incident to a lawful arrest. Id. At 262. Although the stop itself was unconstitutional, the officer obtained information of an arrest warrant and lawfully seized Strieff. Although the exclusionary rule applies to “primary evidence obtained as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure” as stated in Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796, 804, the attenuation doctrine is an exception. Id. At 2061.

The attenuation doctrine provides for admissibility when the connection between the unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is sufficiently remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance. Discovery of the valid, pre-existing, and untainted arrest warrant severed the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized incident to arrest.  The fact that the warrant was valid, predated the investigation, and was entirely unconnected to the stop, favors finding of attenuation between the unlawful conduct and discovery of the evidence. Although each case is specific in its own facts, the impact of the decision in this case restricts the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures from citizens’ with outstanding arrest warrants, and restricts their ability to apply the exclusionary rule to evidence obtained as a result of the unconstitutional search or seizure.

Bottom line: Outstanding arrest warrant can allow evidence to be admitted after illegal stop.