Divided High Court Upholds Evidence Seizure Despite Illegal Police Stop

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The Supreme Court today upheld the collection of drug evidence by a Utah detective even though the warrant that was the basis for his arrest was based on evidence form an unlawful investigatory stop. The 5-3 decision drew dissents from the court’s three female justices.

The case arose when South Salt Lake City narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell conducted surveillance on a house based on an anonymous tip about drug activity. After observing Edward Strieff leave the residence, Fackrell detained Strieff, and was told by a dispatcher that Strieff had had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Fackrell searched Strieff and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

The Utah Supreme Court said the evidence could not be used in a trial because it was derived from an unlawful investigatory stop.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for a majority reversing the Utah ruling, said the evidence is admissible because the officer’s “discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized …incident to arrest.”

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the ruling means that “the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. 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,” Sotomayor said. Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also dissented.

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