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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Conviction Stemming from An Unlawful Detention

June 29, 2016

The US Supreme Court has upheld the conviction of a man that resulted from an unlawful police encounter. While investigating a residence for suspected narcotics activity, an officer detained a man later identified as Strieff that had exited the house and walked to a nearby convenience store. While the officer had no evidence that Strieff was engaged in criminal activity or was otherwise dangerous, the officer demanded identification from Strieff and learned that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Strieff was arrested and searched. A baggie of methamphetamine was found on his person. He was convicted of drug possession.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court as the issue at hand involved the application of a federal question, in this case the scope of the Fourth Amendment which protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. There was absolutely no question that the initial investigatory detention of Strieff was unconstitutional. Police have no right to detain people on the street and to their demand identification. However, the legal question was whether the acquisition of evidence, subsequent to the unlawful detention, could nevertheless be upheld under an exception to the Fourth Amendment. In a split decision, the Court held that under the “attenuation doctrine” the seizure of the drugs was lawful.

Under the seldom cited 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, so that “the interest protected by the constitutional guarantee that has been violated would not be served by suppression of the evidence obtained.” The Court’s majority believed that the existence of a valid warrant, and the discovery of drugs within minutes of the unconstitutional conduct, weighed in favor of applying the exception. The Court also concluded that while the police officer did not act lawfully, his actions were not flagrant but rather an “isolated instance of negligence.”

Justice Sotomayor wrote a highly critical dissent that serves not only as an opposing viewpoint, but as a warning. She wrote “By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274–283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.” Clealry, Justice Sotomayor expressed valid concern over the legitimization of police misconduct.

Even if the conduct was negligent, it was still intentional. The validation of any intentional misconduct undoubtedly carries consequences that will impact our civil rights.

The opinion can be read in its’ entirety here:

Utah v. Strieff