The Supreme Court decided an interesting Fourth Amendment issue this morning:
What to do when the only way police learn that a suspect has a valid arrest warrant and is in possession of narcotics is by first violating that suspect’s right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
A. IN PLAIN ENGLISH
The fact pattern in Strieff is pretty common. Police temporarily detain and question a defendant without a valid legal reason—that is, there is no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop and question someone, and then during that questioning, discover that the person has an active and unrelated arrest warrant for something minor like unpaid traffic tickets.
Police then arrest that person and search him or her incident to arrest (SITA). During the search, police find contraband such as pot, coke, meth, or heroin on the arrested person. The question then becomes—should this evidence be admissible in Court when the only way police learned of the valid pre-existing arrest warrant and narcotics was by illegally detaining the person in the first place. That’s the issue in Strieff.
B. JUST THE FACTS
In Utah v. Strieff, police saw Edward Strieff leave a suspected-drug house in Salt Lake City, Utah. However, police had no reasonable suspicion that Strieff committed any offense. Nevertheless, police detained Strieff, questioned him about his presence at the house, and then learned he had an arrest warrant for an unrelated traffic citation. Police arrested Strieff for the traffic citation and during the search incident to the arrest found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia on Strieff.
Strieff was charged with drug possession. He filed a motion to suppress the drug seizure under the Fourth Amendment, but the trial court denied the motion. The Utah Supreme Court reversed Strieff’s conviction because it determined that the initial stop violated Strieff’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure and that the attenuation doctrine did not cure the initial violation.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. and reversed the Utah Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the facts in Strieff support allowing the evidence into trial against Strieff under the “attenuation doctrine.” The attenuation doctrine allows illegally obtained evidence to be admitted under certain facts. [NOTE: The Attenuation doctrine has been around for some time–this case is just the latest in a long line of cases applying and clarifying when the doctrine applies. Thanks to a reader’s comment for this clarification.]
The doctrine directs trial and appellate courts to consider three things before making an attenuation ruling: (1) temporal proximity between the illegal stop and discovery of evidence; (2) intervening circumstances; and (3) purpose and flagrancy of police misconduct.
A majority of the Supreme Court found that the second and third factors supported applying the “attenuation doctrine” and allowing the illegally obtained evidence to be used against Strieff. Specifically, the Court characterized the police officer’s conduct as negligent rather than flagrant. The Court also stated that the valid pre-existing arrest warrant was unrelated and untainted by the officer’s illegal questioning of Strieff.
The Court weighed these factors and determined the arrest warrant for unrelated traffic citations attenuated the taint from the initial illegal detention. The Court allowed the evidence to be used against Strieff.
C. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
This means that you should make sure that you pay all your traffic tickets and clear up active municipal warrants. Otherwise, police may use the fact of a valid preexisting arrest warrant to excuse their unlawful police conduct and illegally detain or arrest you.
On a side note, if you have an arrest warrant for unpaid traffic fines or tickets with the City of San Antonio, you can contact the municipal court and make arrangements to pay the fine and have the warrant lifted. Also, people who go to municipal court with active traffic warrants generally are not arrested. [CAUTION–this is the policy for the City of San Antonio–make sure to check with the municipal court where your ticket is pending before you show up if you have an active warrant.]
GENARO R. CORTEZ