How the Recent Supreme Court Decision in Utah v. Strieff Could Affect Citizen Interactions with Police

The U.S. Supreme Court. Photo Credit- Architect of the Capitol.

The U.S. Supreme Court. Photo Credit- Architect of the Capitol.

On June 20, 2016, in the case of Utah v. Strieff, the United States Supreme Court made a decision which could change civilian rights during police stops. The Court looked at the 4th Amendment, citizen’s protection from unreasonable searches or seizures. A search or seizure can be unreasonable if an officer conducts it with no reason to believe that the person is involved in criminal activity. For decades, if a search or seizure was found to be unreasonable and therefore in violation of the 4th Amendment, any evidence uncovered from the search or seizure could not be used at court. However, with this recent court decision, that standard is changing.

In the facts of this case, Officer Fackrell witnessed the Defendant, Edward Strieff, leave a residence loosely suspected of drug activity. Shortly afterwards, Officer Fackrell detained Strieff, without any reasonable belief of his involvement in criminal activity, and looked over Strieff’s identification. Officer Fackrell then discovered Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation, and proceeded to arrest Strieff. When, as a part of the arrest, Officer Fackrell searched Strieff, he discovered evidence of drugs. Strieff asked the court to exclude this evidence since it was discovered during the unreasonable stop.

The Supreme Court determined that the evidence in Strieff’s case could be used, and applied an exception called the “attenuation doctrine”, which allows the court to look at three factors to determine whether or not the evidence can be used. These factors are: 1) how close in time the search and stop are; 2) intervening circumstances; and 3) the “purpose” and “flagrancy” (glaring or obviousness) of the police misconduct.

Here, the Court said that Officer Fackrell’s unreasonable stop was interrupted by the discovery of a prior valid arrest warrant, Officer Fackrell was authorized to arrest and search Strieff because of the warrant; and his misconduct was not flagrant because he made “good-faith mistakes.”

The Court’s decision in this case drew harsh criticism, including a strongly worded dissent written by Justice Sotomayor.  In her dissent she states that unlawful stops have severe consequences, and the Court risked treating people as second-class citizens by allowing for such an exception. Justice Sotomayor stated that unreasonable police “stops” corrode our civil liberties. She also highlighted the impact these unreasonable stops would disproportionately have on people of color.

Consequently, the Supreme Court’s decision in this case could have unintended consequences. The Court’s decision grants additional deference to law enforcement across the country to arrest and prosecute civilians, despite finding evidence for their crimes while violating their 4th amendment rights.

To read the full text of the Court’s decision, click here.

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