Utah v. Strieff – Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Cop Who Seized Drugs in Unlawful Stop

The Supreme Court has widened the door when it comes to unlawful police searches, following a divided 5-3 opinion in the case of Utah v. Strieff.

The outcome is deeply concerning to anyone who supports suppression of evidence gained as a result of an unlawful search, sometimes referred to as “the fruit of the poisonous tree.” As dissenting Justice Sonya Sotomayor passionately wrote, this ruling allows one’s body to be subject to invasion while the courts excuse the violation of rights. It implies, she said, that we are not citizens of a democracy, but rather “subjects of a carceral state.” Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagen also dissented.

Defendant was suspected of drug activity. After receiving anonymous tips, the officer in this case began staking out his home. On the day in question, officer stopped suspect, who had left his home to walk to a nearby convenience store. The officer requested identification and at that point discovered defendant had an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation. The officer arrested defendant and subsequent to that arrest, conducted a search of his person, at which time he discovered meth and drug paraphernalia.

The problem is that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop in the first place. Prosecutors even admitted this point. But, they argued, that didn’t matter because the officer had acted in good faith.

So it was a “good faith mistake” that the officer stopped this individual without knowing whether the defendant was a long-time visitor to the home or whether he’d just stopped in briefly (the latter might have meant he was there to buy drugs). The officer also apparently acted in good faith when he demanded, rather than asked, to talk to the defendant. Plus, the state argued, this was not indicative of some larger pattern of erroneous and unlawful police conduct. Rather, it was an isolated incident that occurred in the midst of a legitimate investigation.

Based on this reasoning, our Miami criminal defense lawyers opine that perhaps we can start exonerating those arrested for crimes based on the fact that the incidents were isolated? Or maybe it should be on the grounds that defendants involved had good intentions?

Defendant in this case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that failing to exclude the evidence derived from an unlawful stop would encourage police to conduct fishing expeditions in places where there are copious outstanding arrest warrants.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, found this argument unpersuasive and said that outcome was “unlikely” because it could potentially expose police agencies to civil liability.

But citizens shouldn’t have to sue police to prove that unlawful searches are a violation of their rights. As Sotomayor pointed out, there are 16,000 arrest warrants just in Ferguson – a city with a population of 21,000. Essentially, an officer could find a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket and use this as justification for flagrant violation of one’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Contact the Miami criminal defense lawyers at Jacobs Keeley at (305) 358-7991 for a free consultation on your pending criminal matter.