If the police violate your rights and in the process come upon incriminating evidence, that evidence will usually be inadmissible in court. If an officer arrests you and interrogates you without giving you the Miranda warnings, for example, your statements should be excluded for most purposes. Likewise, if an officer stops and searches you without reasonable suspicion or probable cause and thereby finds illegal drugs, the contraband is generally supposed to stay out of court.
And prosecutors who can’t get incriminating evidence in at trial often have to dismiss charges.
But, as the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in June of 2016, constitutional violations have degrees. Some, according to the Court, aren’t so bad. And circumstances can weaken the connection between not-so-bad violations and the evidence they lead to. One such circumstance is the existence of an arrest warrant.
(This article is about the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Keep in mind that your state’s laws might offer more protections.)
In the facts behind the 2016 decision Utah v. Strieff, someone had given an anonymous tip of drug activity at a residence. (579 U. S. ____ (2016).) An officer watched the home off and on, witnessing frequent, short visits. One visitor was Strieff. The officer saw Strieff leave the house and walk to a nearby store. The officer stopped Strieff in the store’s parking lot.
During the detention, the officer asked for and received Strieff’s ID. The officer had police dispatch run the ID; the dispatcher reported that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. That report gave the officer a basis to arrest Strieff.
Officers are normally allowed to search suspects after arresting them, and, in searching Strieff, the officer found a baggie of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.
The Supreme Court found that, even if the officer didn’t have reasonable suspicion to detain Strieff, the meth/paraphernalia evidence had to be considered admissible. The basis of this ruling was what courts call the "attenuation doctrine.” By this principle, if the connection between unlawful police behavior and evidence is remote enough or interrupted, the evidence is admissible. The Court held that the items on Strieff were admissible in court because the existence of the arrest warrant “attenuated” the connection between the evidence and the illegal stop that led to it.
Justice Clarence Thomas, delivering the Strieff opinion, focused on three factors:
Temporal proximity. The officer discovered the contraband only minutes after stopping Strieff. Close “temporal proximity”—between evidence and illegal police conduct—like this weighs in favor of suppressing (excluding) the evidence.
Intervening circumstances. A valid arrest warrant—one that had nothing to do with the officer’s investigation—existed before the encounter with Strieff. That warrant authorized the arrest and search. That kind of intervening circumstance supports admitting evidence.
Officer purpose and flagrancy. Thomas considered Fackrell’s detention of Strieff “at most negligent” and not likely part of “systemic or recurrent” police misconduct. A violation of Fourth Amendment rights being neither “purposeful” nor “flagrant” points toward admitting the evidence.
At least one jurist—Justice Sonia Sotomayor—wasn’t happy about the Strieff outcome. In dissenting from the decision, she summarized the holding like this:
“The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment 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.”