Ferguson Finds its Way to the Supreme Court

Not directly, but certainly unmistakably.

A police officer stopped Edward Streiff after he left a suspected drug house. The officer discovered Streiff had an outstanding warrant, searched him (legally), and discovered he was carrying illegal drugs. The Supreme Court held 5-3 that even though the initial stop was illegal, the drug evidence could be admissible against Streiff in a trial.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion in Utah v. Strieff  notes how common outstanding warrants are not just in the county where the arrest in this case occurred but also in Ferguson, Missouri (16,000 warrants out of 21,000 people).

When police gain evidence through unconstitutional searches that evidence is generally inadmissible in trial per the exclusionary rule. The attenuation doctrine is an exception to the exclusionary rule. Per that doctrine “[e]vidence is admissible when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct [here the illegal stop] and the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance [here finding the warrant].”

The Court first concluded that the discovery of a valid, pre-existing, untainted arrest warrant triggered the attenuation doctrine. The Court, applying a three-factor test articulated in Brown v. Illinois (1975), then concluded that the discovery of the warrant “was [a] sufficient intervening event to break the causal chain” between the unlawful stop and the discovery of drugs.

Proximity in time between the initially unlawful stop and the search, favored suppressing the evidence. But the other factors, “intervening circumstances” and the lack of purposeful and flagrant police misconduct in this case weighed strongly in favor of the State. The warrant was an intervening factor in this case because it was valid, it predated the stop, and it was entirely unconnected to the stop. 

Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion expressed concern that police will (and already are) stop people for the sole purpose of running a warrant check and get away with it as long as they can, after the fact, point to a (minor, unrelated, or ambiguous) infraction.

“Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants—even if you are doing nothing wrong. If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.”

Justice Thomas, writing for the majority did not seem concerned that “dragnets” searches would occur as a result of this case, citing exposure of police to civil liability as a deterrent. And if they did, Justice Thomas wrote, “the application of the Brown factors could be different.”