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Utah v. Strieff: The Supreme Court's Recent Decision May Incentivize Illegal Traffic Stops

In a recent post we discussed when a police officer may stop you on the street and how long he may question you during that stop. According the 4th Amendment, enacted as part of the Bill of Rights, a person shall not be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures. Traditionally, this has meant that the officer needs probable cause to stop you on the street. As discussed in our prior blog post, there are exceptions known as “Terry stops” but by and large these stops cannot be extended without probable cause or consent.

Officers Can Use Evidence Obtained During an Illegal Stop Against You In Court

Less than a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court changed the fundamental expectations of our right to privacy when it handed down its decision in Utah v. Strieff. In its opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that a man could be held criminally culpable for evidence found on his person as a result of an illegal stop. In Salt Lake City, Utah, a police officer suspected Edward Strieff of visiting a house where the officer presumed drug activity to be occurring. Although he had suspicions, he did not have enough evidence to obtain a warrant to search the house. He followed Strieff to a nearby gas station where he pulled Strieff over without probable cause. While stopped, the officer discovered an outstanding yet unrelated traffic warrant and arrested him. The officer then performed a lawful search and found drug paraphernalia. The U.S. Supreme Court found that this evidence could be used in court against Strieff.

You may wonder why any of this is a big deal at all? Doesn’t it stand to reason that even if the officer performed an illegal stop of Strieff, the arrest was still lawful and thus the search was also permissible? The issue is that until now, court interpretations of the 4th Amendment have created what we call the exclusionary rule. The exclusionary rule prohibits evidence obtained in violation of an illegal seizure to be used in court. The premise behind the rule serves as a disincentive for police officers to conduct search and seizures in violation of the 4th Amendment.

The problem here isn’t that the officer searched Strieff incident to a lawful arrest, but rather the controversial point of this case is that the arrest would never have happened but for the illegal stop. If a police officer can use an illegal stop as a means to an end, what incentive remains for police officers to abide by the 4th Amendment?

This Affects You

The initial incident happened in Salt Lake City but because the case was taken all the way to the United States Supreme Court, it affects every person in every state. Many times, people do not even realize a warrant for their arrest has been issued, and a seemingly innocent mistake could mean big trouble. At the office of Jeffrey S. Weiner, P.A. we have over 40 years of criminal defense experience spanning many practice areas, including drug crimes, in the Miami area. Please contact us today for effective and professional legal help.

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