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Utah v. Strieff: Pay Your Parking Tickets, or Lose Your Fourth Amendment Rights

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By: Alex Lindvall

Introduction.

Imagine the following situation:  You leave a friend’s house to run to the local convenient store.  As you walk to the store, a police officer pulls up and stops you on the street; he asks you what you were doing at that house.  You tell him it is your friend’s house.  The officer asks you for your ID, and you comply.  As it turns out, you have an unpaid parking ticket.  You are placed under arrest, and the officer proceeds search you.

Have your rights been violated?  After all, the Fourth Amendment requires a police officer to have at least “reasonable suspicion” that you have committed a crime before he may stop you.  See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).  In a 5 to 3 decision this term, the Supreme Court held that this sort of activity does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Background.

The Fourth Amendment, generally, guarantees that people will be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Accordingly, any evidence obtained by way of an unreasonable search or seizure is inadmissible in court.  See Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 642 (1961) (this inadmissible evidence is often call “the fruit of the poisonous tree”).  For example, if a police officer, without a warrant, kicks down your door and sees marijuana on your dining room table, that marijuana may not be used against you in court.  This is called the “exclusionary rule.”

The Attenuation Doctrine:

The exclusionary rule, however, is not without exceptions.  Take for example the case of Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963).  In Wong Sun, police illegally entered Wong Sun’s home on suspicion that he was dealing drugs.  The officers found no drugs, and Wong Sun was released from custody.  Several days later, however, Wong Sun returned to the police station and confessed to several drug-related crimes.

If not for the officers’ illegal entry, this confession never would have been obtained.  The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the temporal relation between the illegal entry and subsequent confession was too “attenuated” for the exclusionary rule to apply.  In other words, too much time had passed since the illegal entry to say it “caused” the confession.  This is called the “attenuation doctrine.”  If some intervening event “purges the taint” of the initial illegal search, the evidence will not necessarily be excluded.  Id. at 486.

The Independent Source Doctrine:

Additionally, if evidence was obtained by an “independent source,” an illegal entry will not automatically trigger the exclusionary rule.  See Silverthorne Lumber Co.  v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920).  For example, in Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796 (1984), police sought a warrant to search Segura’s apartment.  Due to “administrative delays,” the warrant was being processed very slowly.  Tired of waiting for a warrant, the police arrested Segura in the lobby of his apartment building, took him to his apartment, and entered illegally.  There, the officers found drug paraphernalia lying on Segura’s table.  Segura and the officers then sat for nineteen hours, waiting for the warrant to be issued.  Once the warrant was received, the police searched the remainder of Segura’s apartment, finding cocaine.

Segura sought to suppress the paraphernalia and cocaine under the exclusionary rule.  The Supreme Court refused this request.  The Court held the evidence was admissible despite the illegal search because the warrant was supported by information “wholly unconnected with the [illegal] entry…”  Id. at 814.  Since the warrant “did not contribute…to [the] discovery of the evidence seized,” it was a sufficient independent source to purge the taint of the illegal entry.

Utah v. Strieff.

The Supreme Court recently applied these standards in Utah v. Strieff, 579 U.S. ___ (2016).  In this case, Strieff exited what a police officer suspected to be a “drug house.”  Absent any reasonable suspicion that Strieff had committed a crime, the officer stopped Strieff on the street.  He demanded Strieff’s ID; Strieff complied.  After running Strieff’s ID through the police database, the officer discovered that he had a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket.  At that point, the officer arrested Strieff and conducted a “search incident to arrest.”  The officer found a baggie of methamphetamine in Strieff’s pocket.

Strieff sought to exclude this evidence at trial, arguing that the evidence was obtained by way of an illegal search.  The Utah Supreme Court agreed, holding that only “a voluntary act of the defendant’s free will,” as seen in Wong Sun, can trigger the attenuation doctrine.  State v. Strieff, 357 P.3d 532, 536 (Utah 2015).   Because Strieff’s arrest did not meet this description, the Utah Supreme Court ordered the evidence to be suppressed.

The Majority Opinion:

The United States Supreme Court, however, overruled the Utah Supreme Court.  In a 5 to 3 ruling, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court held that “the evidence the officer seized as a part of the search incident to arrest is admissible because the officer’s discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized…”  Strieff, 579 U.S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op. at 1).  “The exclusionary rule exists to deter police misconduct,” the Court reasoned.  Id. slip op. at 8.  “But [the arresting officer’s] errors in judgment hardly rise to a purposeful or flagrant violation of Strieff’s Fourth Amendment rights.”  Id.  Accordingly, the exclusionary rule should not apply because the officer “was at most negligent.”  Id. 

In other words, the exclusionary rule exists only to deter future police misconduct.  Although the officer stopped Strieff without any legal basis, this Fourth Amendment violation only occurred because of the officer’s negligence.  The exclusionary rule cannot deter negligence; therefore, it does not apply.

Justice Sotomayor’s Dissent:

Justice Sotomayor wrote a passionate dissent.  She characterized the majority’s holding as follows: “This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding 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…”  Id. slip op. at 1 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

Justice Sotomayor flatly rejected the majority’s reasoning that the exclusionary rule will not deter negligent police conduct.  “Even officers prone to negligence can learn from courts that exclude illegally obtained evidence.  Indeed, they are perhaps the most in need of the education…”  Id. slip op. at 7 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).  If the courts consistently applied the exclusionary rule, Justice Sotomayor reasoned, many police officers will err on the side of caution—out of fear that their evidence might be suppressed.  This consistency will likely cause the police departments to alter their police handbooks and training procedures.  Accordingly, other officers—the negligent ones, who for some reason have difficulty not violating the Constiution—will, hopefully, follow these new procedures.

Conclusion.

In sum, if you have an unpaid parking ticket, you could unknowingly be forfeiting your constitutional rights.  There are currently about 8 million outstanding warrants stored in government databases, the vast majority of which are for minor offenses.  In the recent report conducted by the Department of Justice on Ferguson, Missouri, it was estimated that of Ferguson’s 21,000-person population, 16,000 people had outstanding warrants against them.  To find out if you have an outstanding warrant in the State of Arizona, please visit the following website to search your name: https://www.mcso.org/TechnoCops/Warrants.aspx?sel=A