In a June 20, 2016 decision, the United States Supreme Court acted by a five to three vote to overturn a Utah Supreme Court decision suppressing evidence found in a search incident to an arrest. The Court determined that a preexisting arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the alleged unconstitutional investigatory stop and the evidence seized incident to a lawful arrest.  Utah v. Strieff, 2016 U.S. Lexis 3926.

Facts and Prior History

A narcotics detective conducted surveillance on a residence based on an anonymous tip about suspected 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 Strieff leave the residence, the officer detained Strieff at a nearby parking lot, identifying himself and asking Strieff what he was doing at the house.  The officer 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.  The officer 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.


In an opinion written by Justice Thomas, the Court said that to enforce the Fourth Amendment‘s prohibition against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” the Court has at times required courts to exclude evidence obtained by unconstitutional police conduct.  However, Justice Thomas also noted that the Court has also previously held that, even when there is a Fourth Amendment violation, there are limits placed on the evidentiary exclusionary rule to ensure that the deterrence benefits of the rule are not outweighed by the substantial social costs.

In some cases, the Court observed, the link between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence is too attenuated to justify suppression.  The Court stated that the question presented in this case was 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.

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.'” Segura v. United States, 468 U. S. 796, 804 (1984).

But the Court in Strieff noted that the “significant costs of this rule have led us to deem it ‘applicable only . . . where its deterrence benefits outweigh its substantial social costs.’”  Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U. S. 586, 591 (2006). The Court then discussed three potentially relevant exceptions to the exclusionary rule which relate to the causal relationship between the unconstitutional act and the discovery of evidence.

First, the Court addressed the independent source doctrine, which allows trial courts to admit evidence obtained in an unlawful search if officers independently acquired it from a separate, independent source.  See Murray v. United States, 487 U. S. 533, 537 (1988).

Second, the Court discussed the inevitable discovery doctrine, which allows for the admission of evidence that would have been discovered even without the unconstitutional source.  See Nix v. Williams, 467 U. S. 431, 443-444 (1984).

Third, and at issue here, is the attenuation doctrine.  The Court stated that the attenuation doctrine provides that 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.”

The Utah Supreme Court declined to apply the attenuation doctrine because it read the United States Supreme Court’s precedents as applying the doctrine only “to circumstances involving an independent act of a defendant’s ‘free will’ in confessing to a crime or consenting to a search.”  The Supreme Court, however, declined to limit applicability of the attenuation doctrine only to instances of an exercise of free will on the part of a defendant.  Rather, the Court noted that “[t]he attenuation doctrine evaluates the causal link between the government’s unlawful act and the discovery of evidence, which often has nothing to do with a defendant’s actions.”

In determining whether to apply the attenuation doctrine to the facts of this case, the Court evaluated three factors.  The first of these was that of the “temporal proximity” between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of evidence to determine how closely the discovery of evidence followed the unconstitutional search.  Here, only a matter of a few minutes elapsed between the unlawful detention of Strieff and the discovery of the arrest warrant, followed closely by the arrest and search of Strieff.  The Court stated that this factor weighed against the State.

The second factor was the presence of intervening circumstances.  Here, the Court observed that the warrant was valid, it predated the officer’s investigation, and it was entirely unconnected with the stop.  The Court also observed that once the officer discovered the warrant, he had an obligation to arrest Strieff.  This factor strongly favored the State.

The third factor was the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.  On this point, the Court noted that, at most, the officer was negligent.  The detention of Strieff did not involve flagrantly unconstitutional conduct on the part of the police.  The Court stated that the attenuation doctrine reflects the policy favoring exclusion only when the police misconduct is most in need of deterrence–that is, when it is purposeful or flagrant.  For the violation to be flagrant, more severe police misconduct is required than the mere absence of proper cause for the seizure. See, e.g., Kaupp, 538 U. S., at 628, 633.  The Court concluded by stating that this factor  also strongly favored by the State.

Ultimately, the Court held that the evidence the officer seized as part of his search incident to arrest was admissible because his discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized from Strieff’s incident to arrest.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Utah Supreme Court.


Notwithstanding this favorable decision, officers must recognize that the default position from which all analyses of detentions proceeds is whether the detention is supported by facts specific to that detention which indicate the existence of a reasonable suspicion that the person detained was committing, had committed or was about to commit a criminal offense.  The Strieff case does nothing to change this fundamental rule of law.

However, in Strieff, the Supreme Court recognized that decisions to detain are often made on a split second assessment of a variety of factors.  Where this is the case, and the attenuation factors addressed in Strieff are present, law enforcement may be able to overcome application of the exclusionary rule and salvage an otherwise valid and worthwhile prosecution.

As always, if you would like to discuss the ruling in Utah v. Strieff further, please do not hesitate to contact either Paul R. Coble or James R. Touchstone at (714) 446-1400 or, respectively, at prc@jones-mayer.com or jrt@jones-mayer.com.

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