On Monday, the United States Supreme Court sided with the state of Utah on a Fourth Amendment search case, ruling that police can use evidence of a crime in court from an unconstitutional search if they find the suspect has one or more outstanding arrest warrants.
The Court voted 5-to-3 in Utah v. Strieff to reverse a decision of the Utah Supreme Court on an earlier case.
In December 2006, an anonymous source called the South Salt Lake police drug-tip line to report “narcotics activity” at a home. A detective who was watching the home, Douglas Fackrell, was observing visitors when he saw Edward Strieff Jr. exit the house. Fackrell detained Strieff, identified himself, and questioned Strieff before realizing Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. While Fackrell searched Strieff for the arrest, he discovered methamphetamine and a drug pipe.
Strieff challenged his arrest and moved to suppress the evidence found, arguing that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion and that the drugs were derived from an unlawful investigatory stop. The district court denied the motion, allowing the evidence to be used in court, and the Utah Court of Appeals upheld their decision. In 2015, however, the Utah Supreme Court reversed and ordered the evidence suppressed.
“While Officer Fackrell’s decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “The officer’s decision to run the warrant check was a ‘negligibly burdensome precautio[n]’ for officer safety.”
Thomas continues: “Evidence is admissible when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance.”