Utah v. Strieff: A Brief Analysis By: Logan Griffith

Utah v. Strieff: A Brief Analysis

By: Logan Griffith 

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects “the rights of the people … against unreasonable searches and seizures of property by the government.”[1] Historically, violators of one’s fourth amendment rights were treated by the law as trespassers.[2] As such, fourth amendment rights were enforced by way of either self-help or a suit in tort.[3] This changed with the adoption of the exclusionary rule.[4] The exclusionary rule allows for a court to exclude evidence against a defendant that was obtained during an illegal search.[5] There are several exceptions to the exclusionary rule.[6] The exceptions share one common characteristic in that they all pertain to the “causal relationship between the unconstitutional act and the discovery of evidence.”[7] One key exception to the exclusionary rule is the attenuation doctrine, which allows evidence to be admitted “when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance.”[8]

The exclusionary rule and the attenuation doctrine exception, at their heart, are about weighing the costs and benefits to the public of excluding evidence obtained in an unconstitutional search.[9] In order to guide this cost-benefit analysis, the Court, in Brown v. Illinois, set out three factors to be considered.[10] The three factors are 1) the “temporal proximity” between the illegal search and the discovery of evidence, 2) the presence of intervening circumstances, and 3) the “purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.”[11]

In 2016, the Court was tasked with deciding whether the discovery of a valid arrest warrant during the course of an illegal stop was an attenuating circumstance that made the exclusion of evidence obtained unwarranted.[12] In Utah v. Strieff, a detective was watching a house that he believed, due to an anonymous tip, to be involved in the selling of narcotics.[13] The defendant exited the house and the detective illegally detained him and demanded his identification.[14] Once the detective relayed the identification information to his dispatcher, he learned that the defendant had an outstanding arrest warrant.[15] Pursuant to the warrant, the detective searched the defendant and found a small amount of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.[16] At trial, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence and the trial court denied the motion. [17] The defendant appealed, and the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed.[18] He appealed to the Utah Supreme Court and that court reversed, leading the state to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.[19]

The Court handed down three opinions: one majority opinion and two dissenting opinions; all three opinions employ the Brown factors.[20] With regards to the first factor’s consideration of the “temporal proximity,” all of the opinions agree.[21]  The illegal stop, discovery of an arrest warrant, and subsequent search all occurred within minutes of each other, meaning this factor favors exclusion of the evidence.[22] As far as the existence of intervening circumstances, the opinions differ substantially. Justice Thomas’s majority opinion views the discovery of the arrest warrant, essentially, as the beginning of a new interaction. The initial stop was illegal, but the discovery of the arrest warrant removes the taint of illegality from the evidence that surfaces after the discovery, because the “causal chain” has been broken.[23] The dissenting opinions do not see the discovery of an arrest warrant to be as destructive to the “causal chain.” Justice Kagan’s dissenting opinion analyzes the existence of intervening circumstances in terms of foreseeability.[24] Because the procedure of asking for identification and then running said identification through the state’s database is, in part, designed to discover outstanding arrest warrants, such an event is foreseeable enough for it not to be considered “intervening.”[25] Similarly, the opinions are split in regards to the “purpose and flagrancy” of the unconstitutional stop. The majority opinion calls the detective’s actions “at most negligent,” and paints the actions that led to his illegal detaining of the defendant as “good-faith mistakes.”[26] Based on this, the majority decides that this is not the sort of behavior that would be effectively deterred by the exclusionary rule.[27]  Justice Sotomayor disagrees in her dissenting opinion, but notably claims that, even if the detective’s actions were merely negligent, even negligent officers “can learn from courts that exclude illegally obtained evidence.[28] Justice Kagan’s opinion similarly paints the detective’s actions as sufficiently purposeful to warrant exclusion of the evidence.[29]

The decision in this case seemingly suggests that someone who has an outstanding arrest warrant – for instance, someone with a traffic ticket who has “misse[d] a fine payment or court appearance”[30] – essentially forfeits his fourth amendment rights. The majority considers the discovery of an arrest warrant an unforeseeable, “intervening circumstance” that is “entirely unconnected with the stop.”[31] With the number of outstanding warrants in the United States, this view borders on untenable. The majority pays lip service to the “purpose and flagrancy” consideration, but sets the standard far too high. If the detective in this case can be said to have merely made “good-faith mistakes,” what would it take for an officer’s illegal conduct to rise to the level of “purposeful and flagrant?”  The exclusionary rule is about disincentivizing police officers from violating the constitution.[32] As Justice Kagan points out in her dissent, the majority’s ruling will likely do the opposite.[33] If a police officer illegally detains someone and demands his identification, either the suspect will have a warrant, in which case he can be arrested and searched, or he will not have a warrant and he will be unlikely to sue to enforce his fourth amendment rights.[34] This decision has practical, damaging effects on the rights secured by the fourth amendment. As the late Justice Scalia once wrote: “there is nothing new in the realization that the Constitution sometimes insulates the criminality of the few in order to protect the privacy of us all.”[35] Although the defendant in this case was undoubtedly guilty, this is an instance where his criminality should be insulated to protect the privacy of the public.


[1] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[2] Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2061 (2016).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Brown v. Illinois, 422 U. S. 590, 604-5 (1975).

[11] Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056 at 2062.

[12] See Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056.

[13] Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056 at 2057.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id., at 2058.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id., at 2062-63.

[24] Id., at 2073.

[25] Id.

[26] Id., at 2063.

[27] Id.

[28] Id., at 2068.

[29] Id., at 2072.

[30] Id., at 2068.

[31] Id., at 2058.

[32] Id., at 2065.

[33] Id., at 2073.

[34] Orin Kerr, Opinion Analysis: The Exclusionary Rule is Weakened but it Still Lives, SCOTUSblog (June 20, 2016, 9:35 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2016/06/opinion-analysis-the-exclusionary-rule-is-weakened-but-it-still-lives/.

[35] See Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321 (1987).


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