case law update

Evidence Obtained Via Unlawful Stop Attenuated by Pre-Existing Arrest Warrant

Evidence seized during an unconstitutional stop may be used against a defendant where law enforcement discovers an outstanding, valid arrest warrant for the stopped individual, the U.S. Supreme Court held this week.

Narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell investigated an anonymous tip to the South Salt Lake City police drug-tip line reporting “narcotics activity” at a particular residence, in December 2006. Officer Fackrell conducted intermitted surveillance of the home over the course of about a week, observing visitors leave mere minutes after arriving at the house. One of those visitors was Edward Strieff. After Mr. Strieff left the house, Officer Fackrell detained him in a nearby parking lot and asked him what he was doing at the residence.

As part of the stop, Officer Fackrell asked Mr. Strieff for identification. Mr. Fackrell gave Officer Fackrell his Utah identification and Officer Fackrell relayed Mr. Strieff’s information to a police dispatcher, who reported that Mr. Strieff had an outstanding arrest for a traffic violation. Officer Fackrell then arrested Mr. Strieff and searched him, discovering a baggie of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia for which the state charged Mr. Strieff with possession.

At the hearing on Mr. Strieff’s motion to suppress, the prosecutor conceded that Officer Fackrell lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Mr. Strieff but argued the evidence should not be suppressed because the existence of a valid arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the discovery of the contraband. The trial court agreed with the state and Mr. Strieff conditionally pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, reserving his right to appeal the trial court’s denial of his suppression motion.

After the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial, the Utah Supreme Court reversed, holding the evidence was inadmissible. The appeal then went to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The high court turned its analysis on the attenuation doctrine, which 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 did not apply the attenuation doctrine to its analysis of Mr. Strieff’s appeal, reading U.S. Supreme Court precedent to apply 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.” Addressing the matter, the U.S. Supreme Court held that application of the attenuation doctrine is not limited to independent acts by a defendant.

Turning to Mr. Strieff’s specific facts, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Mr. Strieff’s outstanding arrest warrant was a critical intervening circumstance wholly independent from Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop. Notable in its consideration, the high court observed “there is no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent policy misconduct.” Later stating, “it is especially significant that there is no evidence that Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct.” Under the circumstances before it, discovery of the warrant, the court held, broke the causal chain between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of evidence by compelling Officer Fackrell to arrest Mr. Strieff, which resulted in a constitutional search of Mr. Strieff’s person subsequent to his lawful arrest.

The U.S. Supreme Court thus reversed the judgment of the Utah Supreme Court and held the trial court properly denied Mr. Strieff’s motion to suppress. Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan authored dissenting opinions, and each joined by Justice Ginsburg.

Read the full case: Utah v. Strieff


This case law update was written by James P. Heelan, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: Supreme Court, case law update, federal drug cases, james p. garay heelan, narcotics, arrest warrant


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