The dissenting opinions, however, painted the ruling as one that would give police more incentive to make illegal stops with the hopes of finding a reason to search for evidence of a crime. Let’s take a little deeper look at Utah v Strieff and its effect on your Fourth Amendment rights.
Understanding the Fourth Amendment
First, understand that the Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The amendment also states police should have “probable cause” to stop a person.
For instance, if a police officer spots a vehicle they suspect is being driven by a person under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they cannot stop the driver until they observe some type of behavior to give them probable cause, such as driving well below the speed limit, drifting out of the traffic lane or committing a traffic violation, such as turning without signalling.
The Utah v Strieff Ruling
The Utah v Strieff ruling rises from a 2006 case involving a suspected drug house. Police had received an anonymous tip that drugs were being sold from a house. About a week later, narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell was monitoring the house and had seen several people make brief visits to the house.
Fackrell saw Edward Strieff leave the house and walk toward a nearby convenience store. Fackrell stopped Strieff, without probable cause he had committed a crime, and questioned him about why he was at the house. Fackrell also asked for Strieff’s identification and learned from a dispatcher that Strieff had an active warrant for a traffic violation. Fackrell arrested Strieff on the warrant and searched him, finding a baggie with methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.
Based on that discovery, Strieff was charged with possession of illegal drugs and paraphernalia. Strieff sought to have the evidence from the search suppressed because the initial stop was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, but the district court ruled against him. Strieff pleaded no contest to the charges, but retained his right to appeal the admission of the evidence. The appeals court supported the judge, but the Utah Supreme Court overruled and determined the search was illegal because the stop was illegal.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas, however, reversed the decision, stating the discovery of the active warrant was an “attenuation exception.” Previously, courts had limited attenuation exceptions to voluntary actions by a suspect, such as a confession.
Dangers of the Ruling
Justice Sotomayor wrote a stinging dissent, saying, “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.”
In a more mild dissent, Justice Kegan says the ruling “practically invites (police) to do what Fackrell did here.” She goes on to state that if an officer considered stopping a suspect without probable cause, he/she would likely not make the stop if any evidence obtained would be thrown out.
Orin Kerr, a professor of law at The George Washington Law School, sees a future that concurs with Justice Kegan’s approach: “If you’re a police officer and you want to search a suspect to help investigate a crime, you just need to stop the suspect and ask for ID to see if he has an outstanding warrant. If there’s no warrant out for his arrest, you can let him go and he’s extremely unlikely to sue. If there is a warrant, you can arrest him, search him incident to arrest, and question him later; the courts will allow that evidence because you were acting in good faith by trying to investigate the crime.”