Fourth Amendment Further Whittled Away by Utah v. Strieff

–by Jordan Charnetsky

Source: Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016); Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (1975).

Abstract: On June 20, 2016, the United States Supreme Court ruled that evidence obtained after an unlawful stop was admissible where, even though there was a short temporal proximity between the unlawful stop and the discovery of the evidence, the presence of an outstanding arrest warrant for the respondent and lack of flagrant police misconduct favored admission of the evidence.



Narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell conducted surveillance on a South Salt Lake City residence based on an anonymous tip about drug activity. The amount of people Officer Fackrell observed making brief visits to the residence made him suspicious of possible drug dealing activity. Officer Fackrell observed respondent Edward Strieff leave the residence and proceeded to detain and question Strieff. Officer Fackrell was then informed by a police dispatcher that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant. Officer Fackrell proceeded to arrest Strieff, searched him, and found drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine on his person. At trial, Strieff moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was obtained through an unlawful search and seizure.

Procedural History

The trial court ruled that the methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia obtained during the lawful search of Strieff incident to arrest justified the admission of that evidence for trial, even though Detective Fackrell did not have enough evidence to conduct an investigatory stop. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Utah Supreme Court subsequently reversed and held that the evidence should have been suppressed because the warrant that was the basis for the arrest was discovered during an unlawful investigatory stop. The Utah Supreme Court further reasoned that only a voluntary act of a defendant’s free will would sufficiently break the connection between the illegal search and the discovery of the evidence.


Whether evidence seized incident to a lawful arrest on an outstanding warrant should be suppressed when the warrant was discovered during an unlawful investigatory stop.


The Supreme Court reversed and held that the evidence Officer Fackrell seized incident to Strieff’s arrest was admissible based on the application of the attenuation factors from Brown v. Illinois.

The Supreme Court has at times required courts to exclude evidence obtained by unconstitutional police conduct to enforce the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The exclusionary rule does not apply when the costs of the exclusion outweigh its deterrent benefits, even when there is a Fourth Amendment violation.

The Court has previously recognized three exceptions to the exclusionary rule, the third of which, the attenuation doctrine, is at issue here. Under 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.

The Court first addressed a threshold question of whether the attenuation doctrine applies in situations not involving an independent act of a defendant’s free will. The Court said that since the doctrine evaluates a causal link between the government’s unlawful act and the discovery of evidence, these situations often have nothing to do with a defendant’s action. The attenuation doctrine therefore also applies in situations when there is no independent act of a defendant’s free will.

Next, the Court had to determine whether the discovery of a valid arrest warrant was a sufficient intervening circumstance to break the causal chain between the unlawful stop and the discovery of the drug-related evidence. The Court applied the three-factor test articulated in Brown v. Illinois, which examines: (1) the “temporal proximity” between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of evidence to determine how close in time they occurred; (2) the presence of intervening circumstances; and (3) the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.

The first factor here favors suppression of the evidence, as the Court has not deemed this factor to favor attenuation unless substantial time passes between an unlawful act and when the evidence was obtained. Officer Fackrell discovered the evidence mere minutes after an illegal stop, therefore this factor favors suppression of the drug evidence.

The second factor here strongly favors admission of the evidence. The Court reasoned that because the warrant was valid, it predated Officer Fackrell’s investigation, and was entirely unconnected to the stop. Officer Fackrell’s arrest of Strieff was purely a ministerial act that was compelled by the pre-existing warrant. After the discovery of Strieff’s warrant, Officer Fackrell was authorized to arrest Strieff and thus the search incident to the arrest was lawful. The discovery of the warrant was a valid intervening circumstance between the unlawful stop and the then lawful arrest and search.

The third factor also strongly favored admission of the evidence. The purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter police misconduct and the third factor reflects that purpose by favoring exclusion only when the police misconduct is purposeful or flagrant. The Court determined that Officer Fackrell’s actions were at most negligent. He made two mistakes. First, he failed to observe when Strieff entered the residence. This would have allowed Officer Fackrell to determine whether Strieff was a short-term visitor. Second, since Officer Fackrell did not know whether Strieff was a short-term visitor, Officer Fackrell should have asked, rather than demanded, to speak with Strieff. The Court determined that while Officer Fackrell’s decision to make the stop was misled, his conduct thereafter was lawful and did not rise to the level of purposeful or flagrant misconduct.

The Court held that the drug evidence Strieff possessed was admissible because the unlawful stop was sufficiently attenuated by the pre-existing arrest warrant. The Court reasoned that the proximity of the illegal stop to the discovery of the evidence was outweighed by the intervening circumstance of the outstanding arrest warrant, and by the lack of evidence that Officer Fackrell’s illegal stop was purposeful or flagrant misconduct.