In Utah v. Strieff the Supreme Court is tasked with determining whether the exclusionary rule applies to an unlawful stop that leads to a warrant check and search incident to arrest. In 2006 Salt Lake City police received a tip for suspicious drug activity occurring at a house, according Jurist.
The police went to the house and saw Edward Strieff leaving the house to go to a convenience store. Upon leaving the house, officers stopped Strieff and asked for identification. Upon running Shrieff's information, the police found an outstanding warrant for Strieff's arrest and arrested him outside the house. The officer then conducted a search incident to arrest and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia on Strieff's person.
The Utah Supreme Court ruled that the drug evidence could not be used against Strieff because the initial police stop was illegal. That is, it was not supported by reasonable, individual suspicion against Strieff — regardless of the pre-existing warrant.
Evidence the police discover as a result of violating the Fourth Amendment is considered “fruit of the poisonous tree” and is suppressed under what is known as the exclusionary rule. This is a sensible way to deter the police from breaking the law to get evidence they want. But the court has created several exceptions to this rule, such as in cases where the evidence discovered was a result of a search that was based on a clerical error.
According to the New York Times, during the argument before the Supreme Court, lawyers for Utah argued that the officer’s stop of Strieff was a reasonable, good-faith mistake and that suppressing the evidence would harm society far more than it would deter other officers from making similar mistakes.
But as Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out during oral argument, this approach would give far too much latitude to law enforcement: “What stops us from becoming a police state and just having the police stand on the corner down here and stop every person, ask them for identification, put it through, and if a warrant comes up, searching them?”
Justice Elena Kagan added that the threat of this behavior is especially serious in lower-income communities where a majority of residents have outstanding warrants for minor infractions. “If you’re policing a community where there is some significant percentage of people who have arrest warrants out on them, it really does increase your incentive to make that stop,” she said.
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