In a stunning decision today, the United States Supreme Court ruled that drugs taken from a defendant, who was unlawfully stopped and seized by a police officer, should not have been suppressed. The name of the case is Utah v. Strieff.
In 2006, the South Salt Lake City Police Department received an anonymous tip that drug activity was happening at a particular house in the city. Detective Douglas Fackrell began an investigation. For about a week, the detective watched the home and saw visitors arrive and leave within a few minutes. Based on these observations, Detective Fackrell believed the house’s occupants were dealing drugs. As a result, the detective decided to stop the defendant, who he saw exiting the house and walking to a nearby convenience store. The detective detained the defendant in the parking lot and requested his identification while asking why he had been at the house. The detective provided the defendant’s information to dispatch, which discovered he had an active warrant for a traffic violation. Consequently, the defendant was immediately arrested and searched. Detective Fackrell found a baggie of methamphetamine and paraphernalia on the defendant.
The State charged the defendant with possession of drugs and paraphernalia and he filed a motion to suppress. The defendant’s argument was that the detective had unconstitutionally stopped him and therefore any evidence gained pursuant to the stop should be excluded from his trial. The motion to suppress was denied by the trial court but the Utah Supreme Court reversed, holding that the drugs should have been suppressed at the defendant’s trial. The State appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court pointed out that the exclusionary rule (the ruled that states evidence obtained in violation of a defendant’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure is ordinarily excluded) applies to this case. However, the Court found that an exception to the exclusionary rule was present – the attenuation doctrine. The attenuation doctrine states evidence that was illegally obtained might still be admissible if the connection between the unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is remote. Incredibly, the Court found there was sufficient remoteness between the detective’s unlawful stop of the defendant and his search just a few moments later. The Court conceded that only a short time elapsed between the detective’s illegal stop and his seizure of the drugs. However, the discovery of the warrant (which, of course, would never have happened absent the detective’s illegal stop) constituted the presence of an intervening circumstance. Further, according to the Court, Detective Fackrell was “at most negligent,” having made good faith mistakes in detaining the defendant. The Court concluded the detective should have simply requested, instead of demanded, the defendant talk to him. Therefore, because there was sufficient attenuation between the detective’s unconstitutional conduct and his discovery of the contraband, the defendant’s motion was rightly denied by the trial court. It’s a horrific opinion by a majority of the supreme court.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a fiery dissent, correctly stating that today’s opinion allows a cop to stop anyone on the street, demand identification, and run a warrant check (with no adverse consequences in terms of suppressing illegally-obtained evidence). Sotomayor argued the drugs should have been suppressed, because they were discovered as a result of the detective’s own constitutional violation. After all, it was the detective’s illegal stop that was essential in the discovery that the defendant had an open warrant (which led to his arrest and the seizure of the drugs). After correctly concluding the drugs should have been suppressed, Sotomayor wrote that unlawful stops by the police run the risk of treating members of our society as second-class citizens, and there are serious consequences when courts allow cops to violate the law without consequences, as happened here.
Fortunately, the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights provides broader protection to individual rights than does the federal constitution. If this fact pattern ever came before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, there would hopefully be a different outcome than today’s opinion.