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United States Supreme Court Throws a Wrench in “Attenuation Doctrine” in Search & Seizure Case

The United States Supreme Court, in a decision concerning the lawfulness of a stop and search of a man, founds grounds to justify the arrest of the person despite ruling that the police officer violated the man’s constitutional rights by stopping him in the first place.  The decision, issued in Utah v. Strieff, is disturbing because it expands the scope of where unlawful police action might be negated where other circumstances, not known at the time of the unlawful police conduct, become known.

The facts of the case involved a drug investigation of a house in Utah, where the police had received an anonymous tip of “narcotics activity.” Police conducted “intermittent” surveillance of the home where they observed visitors who had left a few minutes after arriving.  One day, they observed this particular defendant leave the home and walk to a nearby convenience store. A detective approached him and asked him what he was doing at the home and requested the man’s identification.

With the man’s identification in-hand, he called dispatch and inquired whether there was any information on the defendant. The detective was informed that the defendant had an outstanding warrant for his arrest.  The defendant was arrested and, following a search incident to the arrest, a bag of methamphetamines and other drug paraphernalia was discovered.

Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress the drugs, asserting that the evidence was inadmissible because he was illegally stopped by the police. During that hearing, even the prosecutor conceded that the detective lacked reasonable suspicion to stop he defendant, but argued that the evidence should nonetheless not be suppressed because the active arrest warrant, which became known following the unlawful stop, attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the seized evidence.  The trial court agreed with the prosecutor that the evidence should be admissible, but the Utah Supreme Court overruled that decision and held that the evidence should have been suppressed.  Upon a petition from the prosecutor, the matter then went before the United States Supreme Court.

Ruling that the evidence should be admissible, the USSC relied upon the “attenuation doctrine.” The attenuation doctrine permits evidence to be admissible when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance. This means that the interest protected by the constitutional guarantee that has been violated would not be served by the suppression of the evidence obtained.  An example of a well-recognized recognized circumstance where the attenuation doctrine is applied is when, after an illegal stop, the person attacks or assaults the police officer.

The United States Supreme Court stated:

“…that the evidence discovered on Strieff’s person was admissible because the unlawful stop was sufficiently attenuated by the pre-existing arrest warrant. Although the illegal stop was close in time to Strieff’s arrest, [a factor that generally supports suppression,] that consideration [was] outweighed by two factors supporting the State. The outstanding arrest warrant for Strieff’s arrest [was] a critical intervening circumstance…wholly independent of the illegal stop. The discovery of that warrant broke the causal chain between the constitutional stop and the discovery of evidence by compelling…[the officer] to arrest Strieff. And it [was] especially significant that there [was] no evidence that…[the officer’s] illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct.”

The opinion, however, was not without dissent.  Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion, with whom Justice Ginsburg joined, was very powerful, stating:

“This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants – even if you are doing nothing wrong. If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant. Because the Fourth Amendment should prohibit, not permit, such misconduct, I dissent.”

“Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

The dissent recognized that although the illegal conduct by the officer uncovered illegal conduct by the civilian, his instincts, although unconstitutional, were correct. A basic principle of the Fourth Amendment, however, is that two wrongs don’t make a right. The dissent noted that the United States Supreme Court has long recognized that when lawless police conduct uncovers evidence of lawless civilian conduct, it has required that the courts exclude any illegally obtained evidence. An example the dissent gave is if an officers breaks into a home and discovery a forged check, that check cannot then be used to prosecute the homeowner for bank fraud.

Disagreeing with the majority, the dissent was not persuaded that the discovery of a warrant was an intervening surprise that he could not have anticipated. The sole reason the officer stopped him was investigatory, and the discovery of the warrant was not separate from the search for drugs.

So what effect does this United States Supreme Court case have on Massachusetts’ citizens?  Because the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights affords greater protection for its citizens than does the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, this decision will not have an impact in Massachusetts.  If the facts of this case were to have occurred in Massachusetts, the court would have held that, absent any reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant, any evidence seized on him would have been suppressed because the attenuation doctrine would not have applied in these circumstances.