Unlawful stop, lawful arrest: What about the evidence?

Unlawful stop, lawful arrest: What about the evidence?

Photo by Brandon Kopp

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Talk Media News) – In its first sitting session back since the death of their colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court heard its second argument of the day in Utah v. Strieff.

The criminal law case involves around an unlawful stop by a Utah detective. After receiving a call about illegal drugs at a home, the detective observed the home for three hours during one week. He believe the home was participating in the drug trade. Upon his return to the home, the detective saw a man he had never seen before leave the house and walk to a nearby convenience store. At the convenience store, he stopped and questioned the man, Edward Strieff. Upon Strieff identifying himself, the detective ran a name check for outstanding warrants and discover Strieff had one for a minor traffic violation. The detective decided to arrest Strieff. Upon detaining him, the detective searched him and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

Upon further hearings at the state level, it was determined the stop, in and of itself, was an unlawful stop based on the officer’s statements. It was determined he had no probable cause, good faith reason to stop and question Strieff. However, it was also determined the arrest was based on probable cause as well as the search and the drugs found as a result of the arrest.

The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the search and refused to suppress the drugs found on Strieff. The Utah Supreme Court reversed saying the Supreme Court had not clearly defined how cases like this Strieff’s case should be handled. It ruled the connection between the stop and the search was too broad and should only apply in narrow cases.

Edward Strieff, represented by Joan Watt, argued everything after the unlawful stop was “poisoned fruit” and should be suppressed. While she admitted the arrest and the search incident to the arrest were lawfully based on probable cause, the manner in which the probable cause came about was the unlawful stop at the very beginning.

Utah Solicitor General Tyler Green argued the opposite. He argued that once a lawful arrest has been made, all searches incident to the arrest are therefore lawful regardless of what happened before the arrest.

John Bash with the Justice Department argued as a “friend of the Court” on behalf of the state of Utah. He told the Court the stop “was a close call” and should not be seen as extremely violating the Constitution. Further he said the numbers of stops don’t show police act in ways contrary to a good-faith belief.

The Justices asked regarding the ramifications of any such decision by the Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy asked the advocates about implementing a flagrancy rule. A flagrancy rule would make the defendant prove the arresting officer knowingly acted in violation of the law, whether subjectively or objectively. Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested Green and Bash advocated lessening the standard for the police stop known as a “Terry Stop.” She also argued it was tactics and strategies like these that made cities like Ferguson, Missouri run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.

The outcome of this case will hinge upon the absence of Justice Scalia. If the state of Utah wins on the basis of their argument the remaining conservative justices (Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito) will have to win over Justices Kennedy and Stephen Breyer for a majority. If there is a 4-4 split, it will mean no majority opinion will suffice and the lower court ruling will stand. If the liberal justices can get five votes, a potentially groundbreaking shift in criminal law jurisprudence will occur on the Court.

What effect the passing of Justice Scalia will have on this case is unknown at the moment, but all bets are off with this being a sure thing either way.

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