Baggie of methamphetamine not “fruit of the poisonous tree” due to outstanding arrest warrant finds US Supreme Court

Utah v Strieff  357 P. 3d 532 (2016)

The US Supreme Court has held that drugs and drug paraphernalia found after an unconstitutional stop were admissible because of an outstanding arrest warrant against the accused.

The accused Strieff was seen leaving a house which the police suspected was being used for drug dealing, and was detained by an officer in a nearby carpark and asked for his identification. It was conceded at trial that this initial detention was without reasonable grounds, and therefore unconstitutional.

When the officer communicated Strieff’s details to a police dispatcher, he was informed of an outstanding warrant for Strieff’s arrest, relating to a traffic violation. The officer then arrested Strieff, searched him and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

The question was whether the evidence should be excluded on account of the unconstitutional stop. The trial court and the Utah Court of Appeals refused to exclude it, the Utah Supreme Court ordered the evidence suppressed, and the US Supreme Court then reversed.

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, which means officers cannot search people on the street without any evidence that the person is engaged in a crime. An ‘exclusionary’ rule has been developed by the court, requiring evidence obtained through unreasonable searches and seizures to be suppressed. This evidence is considered “fruit of the poisonous tree”, and excluding it ensures there is no incentive for police officers to violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court in finding that the relevant factors to analyse the causal link were:

  • the temporal proximity between the unlawful stop and the discovery of evidence;
  • any intervening circumstances; and
  • the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.

The crux of the reasoning is that, because federal law requires a police officer to arrest a person where they discover there is an outstanding arrest warrant in place, and a search is ordinarily incident to that arrest, the discovery of the warrant means there is no causal chain between the unconstitutional stop and the discovery of evidence.

Justices Sotomayor and Kagan wrote dissenting opinions. Justice Ginsburg agreed with Justice Kagan in full, and with three of Justice Sotomayor’s four parts.

There are two primary disagreements between the majority and minority judges, relating to the application of the ‘intervening circumstances’ and ‘purpose and flagrancy’ factors. The majority finds these factors weigh against suppression; the minority finds the other way.

Intervening circumstances
The first disagreement involves the application of a previous precedent, Segura v United States 468 US 796. There, the Court refused to suppress evidence that had been discovered following a search of an apartment. Federal agents had entered the apartment without a warrant, secured it and took its occupants back to the police station. When they were granted a warrant the next day, they searched the apartment and discovered hidden drugs. Critical to the Court’s decision was that the warrant was obtained solely on the basis of independent information. As such the unconstitutional, warrantless entry on the first day was not seen to be causally related to the discovery of evidence on the second.

The majority applies Segura as authority for the proposition that “the existence of a valid warrant favours a finding that the connection between unlawful conduct and the discovery of evidence is sufficiently attenuated to dissipate the taint.” The discovery of that warrant is therefore a “critical intervening circumstance.”

The dissents distinguish Segura on the grounds that in this case, the unlawful conduct of the police was essential to the discovery of the arrest warrant and thus the discovery of evidence, whereas in Segura it was the absence of unlawful conduct leading to the discovery of evidence which made it admissible. The outcome in Segura would not incentivise officers to violate the Fourth Amendment; the outcome here, in light of the “staggering” number of outstanding arrest warrants on the books, may.

Purpose or flagrancy
The second disagreement relates to the ‘purpose or flagrancy’ factor. Strieff argued that because of the prevalence of outstanding arrest warrants, police would engage in ‘dragnet’ searches if the exclusionary rule did not apply.

The majority thought this unlikely, saying that there was no evidence that this had occurred in this case or was a problem more generally in South Salt Lake City, Utah. The stop was, in the majority’s view, an “isolated instance of negligence.” Both dissents focus heavily on the practice and policy of the South Salt Lake City police to check for outstanding warrants at every occasion, emphasising the “staggering number of such warrants on the books.”

The decision provides guidance on the scope of Fourth Amendment rights to security of the person in the US, which have relevance for broader human rights principles concerning the exercise of arbitrary power and due process protections under the law.

The dissenting opinions draw attention to the prevalence of outstanding arrest warrants for minor offences, and the risk of eroding civil liberties through institutionalised practices of routine warrant checks and arbitrary targeting of pedestrians without reasonable suspicion.

The full text of the decision can be found here.

Doug Porteous is a Solicitor at King & Wood Mallesons.