Utah v. Strieff and the State of the Exclusionary Rule

For over 100 years, the United States Supreme Court has recognized some version of the exclusionary rule—the rule of law that allows evidence to be suppressed in a criminal case when the police obtained the evidence illegally. Though originally just a rule in federal criminal cases, by the 1960s, the Supreme Court had expanded the rule to apply to criminal cases at every level (state and federal). By the 1980s, however, a majority of the Supreme Court wanted to pull back on the rule, and since that time, the Court has been gradually limiting it.

A current case before the Supreme Court, Utah v. Strief, presents the next opportunity for the justices to define the boundaries of the exclusionary rule. In this posting, I’ll discuss the concept of the exclusionary rule and some of the exceptions the Court has recognized. I’ll also talk about Utah v. Strief, the question it raises, and the implications of the Court’s decision.

The Exclusionary Rule and the “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” Doctrine

I’ve talked in prior posts about the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment has been interpreted to require authorities to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before conducting a search or arresting an individual. However, authorities can stop and briefly detain a person without a warrant if they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred.

Early in the 1900s, the Supreme Court recognized that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment should be excluded in a criminal case, a rule of law known as “The Exclusionary Rule.” The Court has noted that the rule is meant to deter law enforcement officials from violating the Constitution in conducting investigations. Not long after the exclusionary rule was created, the doctrine of “the fruit of the poisonous tree” was also recognized. This doctrine says that if illegally obtained evidence leads law enforcement to find other evidence, which it would not have otherwise discovered, then that other evidence should be excluded from use in a criminal case as well.

In the century since the creation of the exclusionary rule, the Supreme Court has created a number of exceptions that allow prosecutors to use evidence that otherwise might have been suppressed under the exclusionary rule or the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. Underlying many of the exceptions is the Court’s desire to counter-balance the interest in deterring illegal law enforcement methods against interests in public safety. One exception to the exclusionary rule is known as the attenuation exception, and it applies when the discovery of the evidence is sufficiently separated in time or by some intervening circumstances to break the link between the evidence and the illegal conduct. Another example of an exclusionary rule exception is the good faith exception, which can apply when law enforcement is found to have acted on good faith belief that they were acting legally.

What Happened in Utah v. Strief?

The case of Utah v. Strief starts with what both sides now concede was an illegal stop of the defendant, Edward Strieff. The police had received an anonymous tip about some drug activity at a house in Salt Lake City. Police monitored the house for several days and ultimately decided to stop one of the people they observed entering and leaving the house, Mr. Strieff. Police stopped Strieff without reasonable suspicion and proceeded to ask Strieff for his ID in order to run a check for outstanding warrants. They discovered an outstanding traffic warrant, arrested Strieff, then searched him and found he was carrying methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Strieff was charged with possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Strieff asked the trial court to suppress the evidence found during the stop under the exclusionary rule. The prosecution argued that the evidence should be allowed under the attenuation exception because the discovery of an outstanding warrant was an intervening circumstance that sufficiently separated the illegal stop from the search. Lower courts agreed with the prosecution, but Strieff appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. The court held that the discovery of an outstanding warrant was not an intervening event sufficient to trigger the attenuation exception to the exclusionary rule, but was instead a natural course of events following from the illegal detention.

Arguments Before the U.S. Supreme Court

The State of Utah has now appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, where the parties presented their oral arguments in February. The state continues to maintain that the attenuation exception should apply in this instance because the discovery of an outstanding warrant was sufficient to break the link between the initial illegal stop and the discovery of drugs and paraphernalia on Strieff. They also argue that the police made a reasonable mistake in stopping Strieff in the first place and that the effect of suppressing the evidence in this case would do much more harm to the public than good in deterring future illegal stops.

Given the general trend over the last thirty years to construe the exclusionary rule more and more narrowly, you might expect the Supreme Court to find in the state’s favor in Strieff. However, predicting Supreme Court outcomes is not easy at any time and certainly not now with the recent death of Justice Scalia, one of the justices that typically took a narrower view of the exclusionary rule.

The New York Times reported that, during oral arguments in Strieff, both Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan sounded skeptical of the state’s arguments, raising concerns about giving the police too much power to stop people without cause, especially in communities where high percentages of people have outstanding warrants. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan notably sided with another recent Supreme Court ruling that limited the reach of the exclusionary rule, so their skepticism in the Strieff arguments could mark an important distinction in this case.

What Happens Next?

It’s possible that, without Justice Scalia and with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan appearing sympathetic to Strieff’s argument, the Supreme Court could wind up evenly split in this case. If that happens, the ruling of the Utah Supreme Court will remain in place. The importance of the next Supreme Court appointee will then be clearer on this area of the law, and we’ll need to wait for the next exclusionary rule case before a full Supreme Court to see whether the tide against the rule will continue.

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