In 2016, Americans lost claim to yet another privacy right when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that evidence seized in an illegal stop by police officers can be used in court if the individual had an outstanding warrant for their arrest at the time the search occurred.
In a 5-3 decision, Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the Utah v. Strieff opinion, stating that Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures do not apply when “the link between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence is too attenuated to justify suppression.” In other words, this decision made clear that those with an active arrest warrant lose their reasonable expectation of privacy when interactions with law enforcement occur.
Failing to provide proof of insurance, not remembering to pay a fine, or forgetting to wear a seatbelt are all offenses that can lead to the issuance of an arrest warrant in Utah. In fact, a warrant for a simple traffic violation is what led to the Strieff case in the first place.
Officers had been observing a house in South Salt Lake that they presumed to be the home of a drug dealer. Edward Strieff, the defendant, was leaving the home when narcotics detective Douglas Fackrell illegally stopped him. After relaying his name back to the police dispatcher, Officer Fackrell discovered Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation, and arrested and searched him. He subsequently discovered Strieff had methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia in his possession.
The high court was faced with a question of whether or not evidence obtained in a lawful arrest can be suppressed during trial because the arrest warrant was discovered during an unconstitutional investigatory stop. They would not allow the exclusionary rule, which prohibits illegally obtained evidence from entering the court, because “the cost of exclusion outweighs its deterrent benefits.” Instead, they applied attenuation doctrine, allowing illegally obtained evidence to be admissible due to the strong connection between police misconduct and evidence seized.
This ruling paves the way for potentially justifying police misconduct while weakening constitutional rights. Issuing an arrest warrant, as mentioned above, doesn’t require a dire crime be committed—they’re regularly issued for minor violations of the law. Over 35,000 Utahns currently have outstanding warrants for their arrest. This is number is extremely high when considering the implications this recent decision has on their now weakened privacy rights.
So many Utahns having outstanding arrest warrants suggests the Strieff case could have broad implications in our state. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor illustrated in her dissent, “If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.”
This precedent is extremely alarming because of the power it grants to law enforcement to invade personal property even when their initial stop was unconstitutional. Utah should stand up to this ruling and pass a law to protect all individuals from invasive searches stemming from illegal action. Utah cannot allow law enforcement fishing expeditions to become the norm.
The average Utahn can easily have an arrest warrant issued without realizing it, because it can be the simple result of a minor non-violent offense, such as a speeding or parking violation. Tens of thousands of Utahns should not have their privacy rights compromised because of trivial, unrelated offenses in their past. They can be protected by state law if Utah rejects the Strieff decision and passes a statewide privacy measure in the upcoming legislative session.