Police Warrantless Stops – Utah v. Strieff

Police officers can now stop any person for no reason, then conduct a search for no reason, and then use anything they find to charge you with a crime. What was once a legal fiction is now a reality thanks to the newest Supreme Court ruling in the Fourth Amendment defeating case: Utah v. Strieff.

In order for police officers to stop a person and investigate them, they must have “reasonable suspicion.” This legal standard means an officer is supposed to have specific and articulable facts, more than a mere hunch, that something a person is doing is against the law. Once an officer has reasonable suspicion, an officer can stop that person on the street to ask them questions, performing an investigatory detention. If the officer has reasonable suspicion that person is dangerous, the officer can frisk you them weapons.

In Utah v. Strieff, the suspect, Strieff, was suspected of drug possession. Police observed him leaving a suspected drug house and stopped him – an action normally requiring reasonable suspicion, which the police did not have in this case. Police began questioning Strieff and found he had outstanding warrants for minor traffic violations, leading to his arrest. Once under arrest, officers searched him and found drugs and drug paraphernalia.

None of this would be a problem if officers had reasonable suspicion for that very first stop when Strieff was leaving the suspected drug house… except the officers lacked reasonable suspicion. Because of complicated and lengthy criminal procedural laws, everything after this initial illegal stop should have been suppressed as a violation of Strieff’s Fourth Amendment Rights. This legal doctrine is called the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. That is, any fruits of an unlawful stop, are not allowed to be used against the defendant in court, instead, they must be suppressed.

Yet astoundingly, the Court ruled in a 5-3 decision that once officers found Strieff’s arrest warrant for the minor traffic violations during the illegal stop, somehow that restarted the chain of events, allowing everything the officers did subsequently to be deemed lawful. If you’re wondering what just happened to a foundational principal of criminal procedure, you’re not the only one.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Badar Ginsberg and Elena Kagan, wrote a blistering 12-page dissent lambasting the majority decision. She warns of future wrongdoing by officers, now justified by this decision, and writes that police officers will now be able to stop anyone on the street in violation of your Fourth Amendment rights and without reasonable suspicion, ask for your identification, and check you for outstanding minor traffic warrants – even if you are completely innocent! She argues this now means officers can stop any person based on a simple hunch (say you look like a drug addict), and if they happen to find an arrest warrant on something completely unrelated, the unlawful stop is forgiven and the officer will have done nothing wrong.

This decision completely negates our justice system and the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment. If you have been stopped, arrested, and charged for seemingly no apparent reason and were arrested, you still have rights worth fighting for and protecting.

San Diego Criminal Attorney

Criminal Attorney Alex Ozols is here to help. If you have been pulled over for what you consider to be a warrantless stop please give us a call so we can discuss your options. Just because certain cases have been decided one way doesn’t mean that it will stay that way in the future. We stay on top of supreme court decisions and are always fighting for our clients.


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