Utah v. Strieff

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation195 L.Ed.2d 400,136 S.Ct. 2056
Docket NumberNo. 14–1373.,14–1373.
Parties UTAH, Petitioner v. Edward Joseph STRIEFF, Jr.
Decision Date20 June 2016

136 S.Ct. 2056
195 L.Ed.2d 400

UTAH, Petitioner
Edward Joseph STRIEFF, Jr.

No. 14–1373.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Feb. 22, 2016.
Decided June 20, 2016.

Tyler R. Green, Solicitor General, for petitioner. John F. Bash for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the petitioner. Joan C. Watt, Salt Lake City, UT, for respondent.

Sean D. Reyes, Utah Attorney General, Tyler R. Green, Utah Solicitor General, Laura B. Dupaix, Deputy Solicitor General, Thomas B. Brunker, Criminal Appeals Director, Jeffrey S. Gray, Search & Seizure Section Director, Salt Lake City, UT, for petitioner.

Stuart Banner, UCLA School of Law, Supreme Court Clinic, Los Angeles, CA, Patrick L. Anderson, Joan C. Watt, Salt Lake Legal Defender, Association, Salt Lake City, UT, for respondent.

Justice THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

To enforce the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against "unreasonable searches and seizures," this Court has at times required courts to exclude evidence obtained by unconstitutional police conduct. But the Court has also held that, even when there is a Fourth Amendment violation, this exclusionary rule does not apply when the costs of exclusion outweigh its deterrent benefits. In some cases, for example, the link between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence is too attenuated to justify suppression. The question in this case is whether this attenuation doctrine applies when an officer makes an unconstitutional investigatory stop; learns during that stop that the suspect is subject to a valid arrest warrant; and proceeds to arrest the suspect and seize incriminating evidence during a search incident to that arrest. We hold that the evidence the officer seized as part of the search incident to arrest is admissible because the officer's discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized incident to arrest.


This case began with an anonymous tip. In December 2006, someone called the South Salt Lake City police's drug-tip line to report "narcotics activity" at a particular residence. App. 15. Narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell investigated the tip. Over the course of about a week, Officer Fackrell conducted intermittent surveillance of the home. He observed visitors who left a few minutes after arriving at the house. These visits were sufficiently frequent to raise his suspicion that the occupants were dealing drugs.

136 S.Ct. 2060

One of those visitors was respondent Edward Strieff. Officer Fackrell observed Strieff exit the house and walk toward a nearby convenience store. In the store's parking lot, Officer Fackrell detained Strieff, identified himself, and asked Strieff what he was doing at the residence.

As part of the stop, Officer Fackrell requested Strieff's identification, and Strieff produced his Utah identification card. Officer Fackrell relayed Strieff's information to a police dispatcher, who reported that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Officer Fackrell then arrested Strieff pursuant to that warrant. When Officer Fackrell searched Strieff incident to the arrest, he discovered a baggie of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

The State charged Strieff with unlawful possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Strieff moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the evidence was inadmissible because it was derived from an unlawful investigatory stop. At the suppression hearing, the prosecutor conceded that Officer Fackrell lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop but argued that 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 admitted the evidence. The court found that the short time between the illegal stop and the search weighed in favor of suppressing the evidence, but that two countervailing considerations made it admissible. First, the court considered the presence of a valid arrest warrant to be an " ‘extraordinary intervening circumstance.’ " App. to Pet. for Cert. 102 (quoting United States v. Simpson, 439 F.3d 490, 496 (C.A.8 2006) ). Second, the court stressed the absence of flagrant misconduct by Officer Fackrell, who was conducting a legitimate investigation of a suspected drug house.

Strieff conditionally pleaded guilty to reduced charges of attempted possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia, but reserved his right to appeal the trial court's denial of the suppression motion. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed. 2012 UT App ¶ 245, 286 P.3d 317.

The Utah Supreme Court reversed. 2015 UT ¶ 2, 357 P.3d 532. It held that the evidence was inadmissible because only "a voluntary act of a defendant's free will (as in a confession or consent to search)" sufficiently breaks the connection between an illegal search and the discovery of evidence. Id., at 536. Because Officer Fackrell's discovery of a valid arrest warrant did not fit this description, the court ordered the evidence suppressed. Ibid .

We granted certiorari to resolve disagreement about how the attenuation doctrine applies where an unconstitutional detention leads to the discovery of a valid arrest warrant. 576 U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 27, 192 L.Ed.2d 997 (2015). Compare, e.g., United States v. Green, 111 F.3d 515, 522–523 (C.A.7 1997) (holding that discovery of the warrant is a dispositive intervening circumstance where police misconduct was not flagrant), with, e.g., State v. Moralez, 297 Kan. 397, 415, 300 P.3d 1090, 1102 (2013) (assigning little significance to the discovery of the warrant). We now reverse.



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." Because officers who violated the

136 S.Ct. 2061

Fourth Amendment were traditionally considered trespassers, individuals subject to unconstitutional searches or seizures historically enforced their rights through tort suits or self-help. Davies, Recovering the Original Fourth Amendment, 98 Mich. L. Rev. 547, 625 (1999). In the 20th century, however, 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, 367 U.S. 643, 655, 81 S.Ct. 1684, 6 L.Ed.2d 1081 (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, 468 U.S. 796, 804, 104 S.Ct. 3380, 82 L.Ed.2d 599 (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, 547 U.S. 586, 591, 126 S.Ct. 2159, 165 L.Ed.2d 56 (2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Suppression of evidence ... has always been our last resort, not our first impulse." Ibid.

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, 487 U.S. 533, 537, 108 S.Ct. 2529, 101 L.Ed.2d 472 (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, 467 U.S. 431, 443–444, 104 S.Ct. 2501, 81 L.Ed.2d 377 (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, supra, at 593, 126 S.Ct. 2159.


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." 357 P.3d, at 544. 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.


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