Utah v. Strieff

Utah v. Strieff

579 U.S. _____ (2016)



Vote:   5 (Alito, Breyer, Kennedy, Roberts, Thomas)

3 (Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor)

Opinion of the Court: Thomas

Dissenting opinions: Kagan, Sotomayor



In December 2006, an anonymous caller to a police tip line described a house in south Salt Lake City that the caller believed to host some narcotics activity. Detective Douglas Fackrell began observing the house sporadically for a total of about three hours over the course of a week. Fackrell occasionally observed individuals entering the house and leaving just a few minutes later. These brief visits were consistent with drug-purchasing behavior.

On one occasion Fackrell observed a man—Edward Joseph Strieff, Jr.—leave the house and walk to a nearby convenience store. Fackrell had never seen this man before and had not seen him enter the house. Although the detective lacked any particularized suspicion and did not know if Strieff was a short-term visitor or a resident of the house, he decided to question him. Fackrell intercepted Strieff in the convenience store parking lot. He ordered Strieff to stop, explained his intention to question him about the house, and asked for identification.

After Strieff provided his identification, Fackrell called to request a check for outstanding warrants and learned that Strieff had an outstanding warrant for a minor traffic violation. Fackrell arrested Strieff pursuant to the warrant and performed a search incident to a valid arrest. He found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia in Strieff’s pockets.

Utah charged Strieff with unlawful possession of methamphetamine. Strieff moved to suppress the drug evidence because it was obtained as a result of an unlawful detention. Utah conceded that the stop was unlawful; Fackrell lacked reasonable suspicion to stop and detain Strieff. However, the state argued that the evidence should be admissible by application of the “attenuation doctrine”—i.e., that the illegal stop was sufficiently attenuated from the search incident to Strieff’s arrest that such evidence should not be suppressed.

The trial court agreed with the state and allowed the evidence to be admitted, but the Utah Supreme Court reversed, holding that the evidence was a product of an illegal stop and should be excluded. U.S. Supreme Court granted review.


JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” . . . In the 20th century . . . the exclusionary rule—the rule that often requires trial courts to exclude unlawfully seized evidence in a criminal trial—became the principal judicial remedy to deter Fourth Amendment violations. See, e.g., Mapp v. Ohio (1961).

            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 (1984). But 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 (2006). “Suppression of evidence . . . has always been our last resort, not our first impulse.”

We have accordingly recognized several exceptions to the rule. Three of these exceptions involve the causal relationship between the unconstitutional act and the discovery of evidence. First, the independent source doctrine 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 (1988). Second, the inevitable discovery doctrine allows for the admission of evidence that would have been discovered even without the unconstitutional source. See Nix v. Williams (1984). Third, and at issue here, is the attenuation doctrine: 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.” Hudson.

Turning to the application of the attenuation doctrine to this case, we first address a threshold question: whether this doctrine applies at all to a case like this, where the intervening circumstance that the State relies on is the discovery of a valid, pre-existing, and untainted arrest warrant. The Utah Supreme Court declined to apply the attenuation doctrine because it read our 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.” In this Court, Strieff has not defended this argument, and we disagree with it, as well. The 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. And the logic of our prior attenuation cases is not limited to independent acts by the defendant.

It remains for us to address whether the discovery of a valid arrest warrant was a sufficient intervening event to break the causal chain between the unlawful stop and the discovery of drug-related evidence on Strieff’s person. The three factors articulated in Brown v. Illinois (1975), guide our analysis. First, we look to the “temporal proximity” between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of evidence to determine how closely the discovery of evidence followed the unconstitutional search. Second, we consider “the presence of intervening circumstances.” Third, and “particularly” significant, we examine “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.” In evaluating these factors, we assume without deciding (because the State conceded the point) that Officer Fackrell lacked reasonable suspicion to initially stop Strieff. . . .

The first factor, temporal proximity between the initially unlawful stop and the search, favors suppressing the evidence. Our precedents have declined to find that this factor favors attenuation unless “substantial time” elapses between an unlawful act and when the evidence is obtained. Kaupp v. Texas (2003). Here, however, Officer Fackrell discovered drug contraband on Strieff’s person only minutes after the illegal stop. . . .

In contrast, the second factor, the presence of intervening circumstances, strongly favors the State. In Segura the Court addressed similar facts to those here and found sufficient intervening circumstances to allow the admission of evidence. There, agents had probable cause to believe that apartment occupants were dealing cocaine. They sought a warrant. In the meantime, they entered the apartment, arrested an occupant, and discovered evidence of drug activity during a limited search for security reasons. The next evening, the Magistrate Judge issued the search warrant. This Court deemed the evidence admissible notwithstanding the illegal search because the information supporting the warrant was “wholly unconnected with the [arguably illegal] entry and was known to the agents well before the initial entry.”

Segura, of course, applied the independent source doctrine because the unlawful entry “did not contribute in any way to discovery of the evidence seized under the warrant.” But the Segura Court suggested that the existence of a valid warrant favors finding that the connection between unlawful conduct and the discovery of evidence is “sufficiently attenuated to dissipate the taint.” That principle applies here.

In this case, the warrant was valid, it predated Officer Fackrell’s investigation, and it was entirely unconnected with the stop. And once Officer Fackrell discovered the warrant, he had an obligation to arrest Strieff. “A warrant is a judicial mandate to an officer to conduct a search or make an arrest, and the officer has a sworn duty to carry out its provisions.” United States v. Leon (1984). Officer Fackrell’s arrest of Strieff thus was a ministerial act that was independently compelled by the pre-existing warrant. And once Officer Fackrell was authorized to arrest Strieff, it was undisputedly lawful to search Strieff as an incident of his arrest to protect Officer Fackrell’s safety.

Finally, the third factor, “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct,” also strongly favors the State. The exclusionary rule exists to deter police misconduct. Davis v. United States (2011). The third factor of the attenuation doctrine reflects that rationale by favoring exclusion only when the police misconduct is most in need of deterrence—that is, when it is purposeful or flagrant.

Officer Fackrell was at most negligent. In stopping Strieff, Officer Fackrell made two good-faith mistakes. First, he had not observed what time Strieff entered the suspected drug house, so he did not know how long Strieff had been there. Officer Fackrell thus lacked a sufficient basis to conclude that Strieff was a short-term visitor who may have been consummating a drug transaction. Second, because he lacked confirmation that Strieff was a short-term visitor, Officer Fackrell should have asked Strieff whether he would speak with him, instead of demanding that Strieff do so. Officer Fackrell’s stated purpose was to “find out what was going on [in] the house.” Nothing prevented him from approaching Strieff simply to ask. But these errors in judgment hardly rise to a purposeful or flagrant violation of Strieff’s Fourth Amendment rights.

While Officer Fackrell’s decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful. The officer’s decision to run the warrant check was a “negligibly burdensome precautio[n]” for officer safety. Rodriguez v. United States (2015). And Officer Fackrell’s actual search of Strieff was a lawful search incident to arrest.

Moreover, there is no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct. To the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the stop was an isolated instance of negligence that occurred in connection with a bona fide investigation of a suspected drug house. Officer Fackrell saw Strieff leave a suspected drug house. And his suspicion about the house was based on an anonymous tip and his personal observations.

Applying these factors, we hold 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, that consideration is outweighed by two factors supporting the State. The outstanding arrest warrant for Strieff’s arrest is a critical intervening circumstance that is wholly independent of the illegal stop. The discovery of that warrant broke the causal chain between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of evidence by compelling Officer Fackrell to arrest Strieff. And, it is especially significant that there is no evidence that Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop reflected flagrantly unlawful police misconduct. . . .

We hold that the evidence Officer Fackrell seized as part of his search incident to arrest is admissible because his discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized from Strieff incident to arrest. The judgment of the Utah Supreme Court, accordingly, is reversed.

It is so ordered.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR, with whom JUSTICE GINSBURG joins [except as to the final section of this excerpt], dissenting.

The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your rights. Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: 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.

It is tempting in a case like this, where illegal conduct by an officer uncovers illegal conduct by a civilian, to forgive the officer. After all, his instincts, although unconstitutional, were correct. But a basic principle lies at the heart of the Fourth Amendment: Two wrongs don’t make a right. When “lawless police conduct” uncovers evidence of lawless civilian conduct, this Court has long required later criminal trials to exclude the illegally obtained evidence. Mapp v. Ohio (1961). . . .

This “exclusionary rule” removes an incentive for officers to search us without proper justification. Terry [v. Ohio (1968)]. It also keeps courts from being “made party to lawless invasions of the constitutional rights of citizens by permitting unhindered governmental use of the fruits of such invasions.” When courts admit only lawfully obtained evidence, they encourage “those who formulate law enforcement polices, and the officers who implement them, to incorporate Fourth Amendment.” Stone v. Powell (1976). But when courts admit illegally obtained evidence as well, they reward “manifest neglect if not an open defiance of the prohibitions of the Constitution.” Weeks [v. United States (1914)].

Applying the exclusionary rule, the Utah Supreme Court correctly decided that Strieff’s drugs must be excluded because the officer exploited his illegal stop to discover them. The officer found the drugs only after learning of Strieff’s traffic violation; and he learned of Strieff’s traffic violation only because he unlawfully stopped Strieff to check his driver’s license. . . .

. . . We distinguished evidence obtained by innocuous means from evidence obtained by exploiting misconduct after considering a variety of factors: whether a long time passed, whether there were “intervening circumstances,” and whether the purpose or flagrancy of the misconduct was “calculated” to procure the evidence. Brown v. Illinois (1975).

These factors confirm that the officer in this case discovered Strieff’s drugs by exploiting his own illegal conduct. The officer did not ask Strieff to volunteer his name only to find out, days later, that Strieff had a warrant against him. The officer illegally stopped Strieff and immediately ran a warrant check. The officer’s discovery of a warrant was not some intervening surprise that he could not have anticipated. Utah lists over 180,000 misdemeanor warrants in its database, and at the time of the arrest, Salt Lake County had a “backlog of outstanding warrants” so large that it faced the “potential for civil liability.” The officer’s violation was also calculated to procure evidence. His sole reason for stopping Strieff, he acknowledged, was investigative—he wanted to discover whether drug activity was going on in the house Strieff had just exited.

The warrant check, in other words, was not an “intervening circumstance” separating the stop from the search for drugs. It was part and parcel of the officer’s illegal “expedition for evidence in the hope that something might turn up.” Brown. Under our precedents, because the officer found Strieff’s drugs by exploiting his own constitutional violation, the drugs should be excluded.

The Court sees things differently. To the Court, the fact that a warrant gives an officer cause to arrest a person severs the connection between illegal policing and the resulting discovery of evidence. This is a remarkable proposition: The mere existence of a warrant not only gives an officer legal cause to arrest and search a person, it also forgives an officer who, with no knowledge of the warrant at all, unlawfully stops that person on a whim or hunch. . . .

The majority also posits that the officer could not have exploited his illegal conduct because he did not violate the Fourth Amendment on purpose. Rather, he made “good-faith mistakes.” Never mind that the officer’s sole purpose was to fish for evidence. The majority casts his unconstitutional actions as “negligent” and therefore incapable of being deterred by the exclusionary rule.

But the Fourth Amendment does not tolerate an officer’s unreasonable searches and seizures just because he did not know any better. . . .

Most striking about the Court’s opinion is its insistence that the event here was “isolated,” with “no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct.” Respectfully, nothing about this case is isolated.

Outstanding warrants are surprisingly common. . . . The States and Federal Government maintain databases with over 7.8 million outstanding warrants, the vast majority of which appear to be for minor offenses. Even these sources may not track the “staggering” numbers of warrants, “ ‘drawers and drawers’ ” full, that many cities issue for traffic violations and ordinance infractions. . . .

Justice Department investigations across the country have illustrated how these astounding numbers of warrants can be used by police to stop people without cause. In a single year in New Orleans, officers “made nearly 60,000 arrests, of which about 20,000 were of people with outstanding traffic or misdemeanor warrants from neighboring parishes for such infractions as unpaid tickets.” . . . In Newark, New Jersey, officers stopped 52,235 pedestrians within a 4-year period and ran warrant checks on 39,308 of them. The Justice Department analyzed these warrant-checked stops and reported that “approximately 93% of the stops would have been considered unsupported by articulated reasonable suspicion.”

I do not doubt that most officers act in “good faith” and do not set out to break the law. That does not mean these stops are “isolated instance[s] of negligence,” however. Many are the product of institutionalized training procedures. . . . The Utah Supreme Court described as “ ‘routine procedure’ or ‘common practice’ ” the decision of Salt Lake City police officers to run warrant checks on pedestrians they detained without reasonable suspicion. . . .

* * *

Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name. . . .

Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact. Whren v. United States (1996). That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law, Terry, but it may factor in your ethnicity, United States v. Brignoni-Ponce (1975), where you live, Adams v. Williams 147 (1972), what you were wearing, United States v. Sokolow (1989), and how you behaved, Illinois v. Wardlow (2000). The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.

The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal. The officer may next ask for your “consent” to inspect your bag or purse without telling you that you can decline. See Florida v. Bostick (1991). Regardless of your answer, he may order you to stand “helpless, perhaps facing a wall with [your] hands raised.” Terry. If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons. This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “ ‘feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.’ ”

The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail . . . At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.” Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington (2012). Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the “civil death” of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check. And, of course, if you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you “arrestable on sight” in the future.

This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes, many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches. The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner. But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. . . .

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.

I dissent.


JUSTICE KAGAN, with whom JUSTICE GINSBURG joins, dissenting.

This Court has established a simple framework for determining whether to exclude evidence obtained through a Fourth Amendment violation: Suppression is necessary when, but only when, its societal benefits outweigh its costs. Davis v. United States (2011). The exclusionary rule serves a crucial function—to deter unconstitutional police conduct. . . . But suppression of evidence also “exacts a heavy toll”: Its consequence in many cases is to release a criminal without just punishment. Our decisions have thus endeavored to strike a sound balance between those two competing considerations—rejecting the “reflexive” impulse to exclude evidence every time an officer runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment, but insisting on suppression when it will lead to “appreciable deterrence” of police misconduct, Herring v. United States (2009).

This case thus requires the Court to determine whether excluding the fruits of Officer Douglas Fackrell’s unjustified stop of Edward Strieff would significantly deter police from committing similar constitutional violations in the future. And as the Court states, that inquiry turns on application of the “attenuation doctrine”—our effort to “mark the point” at which the discovery of evidence “become[s] so attenuated” from the police misconduct that the deterrent benefit of exclusion drops below its cost. United States v. Leon (1984). Since Brown v. Illinois (1975), three factors have guided that analysis. First, the closer the “temporal proximity” between the unlawful act and the discovery of evidence, the greater the deterrent value of suppression. Second, the more “purpose[ful]” or “flagran[t]” the police illegality, the clearer the necessity, and better the chance, of preventing similar misbehavior. And third, the presence (or absence) of “intervening circumstances” makes a difference: The stronger the causal chain between the misconduct and the evidence, the more exclusion will curb future constitutional violations. Here, as shown below, each of those considerations points toward suppression: Nothing in Fackrell’s discovery of an outstanding warrant so attenuated the connection between his wrongful behavior and his detection of drugs as to diminish the exclusionary rule’s deterrent benefits.

Start where the majority does: The temporal proximity factor, it forthrightly admits, “favors suppressing the evidence.” After all, Fackrell’s discovery of drugs came just minutes after the unconstitutional stop. And in prior decisions, this Court has made clear that only the lapse of “substantial time” between the two could favor admission. So the State, by all accounts, takes strike one.

Move on to the purposefulness of Fackrell’s conduct, where the majority is less willing to see a problem for what it is. The majority chalks up Fackrell’s Fourth Amendment violation to a couple of innocent “mistakes.” But far from a Barney Fife-type mishap, Fackrell’s seizure of Strieff was a calculated decision, taken with so little justification that the State has never tried to defend its legality. . .

. . .Swing and a miss for strike two.

Finally, consider whether any intervening circumstance “br[oke] the causal chain” between the stop and the evidence. The notion of such a disrupting event comes from the tort law doctrine of proximate causation. And as in the tort context, a circumstance counts as intervening only when it is unforeseeable—not when it can be seen coming from miles away. . .

And Fackrell’s discovery of an arrest warrant—the only event the majority thinks intervened—was an eminently foreseeable consequence of stopping Strieff. As Fackrell testified, checking for outstanding warrants during a stop is the “normal” practice of South Salt Lake City police. In other words, the department’s standard detention procedures—stop, ask for identification, run a check—are partly designed to find outstanding warrants. And find them they will, given the staggering number of such warrants on the books. . . . So outstanding warrants do not appear as bolts from the blue. They are the run-of-the-mill results of police stops—what officers look for when they run a routine check of a person’s identification and what they know will turn up with fair regularity. In short, they are nothing like what intervening circumstances are supposed to be. Strike three.

The majority’s misapplication of Brown’s three-part inquiry creates unfortunate incentives for the police—indeed, practically invites them to do what Fackrell did here. . . . The officer’s incentive to violate the Constitution thus increases: From here on, he sees potential advantage in stopping individuals without reasonable suspicion—exactly the temptation the exclusionary rule is supposed to remove. Because the majority thus places Fourth Amendment protections at risk, I respectfully dissent.