On June 20, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Utah v. Strieff that allows the police to use evidence in a criminal case, even when the police collect the evidence unconstitutionally.
The general rule is that if the police violate your constitutional rights when collecting evidence, they are not allowed to use that evidence to prosecute you in a criminal case. Although there are exceptions to this rule, it is a right created by the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In short, the police cannot benefit from breaking the rules.
In Utah v. Strieff, the Supreme Court expanded one of the exceptions to the rule, which will allow the police to use evidence against you, even if the evidence is collected illegally.
In this case, the police were watching a house where they thought drugs were being sold. They saw a man walk out of the house and down the street. The police had no evidence that the man had committed any crime. The police stopped the man and demanded his ID. When the man gave the police his ID, they learned that he had an arrest warrant from a completely different crime, so they arrested him. As they arrested him, they discovered methamphetamine in his pocket, which was used against him at trial.
When the police first stopped the man, it was an illegal stop because the police did not have any evidence to believe that the man had committed a crime. Before this case, the drugs found in the man’s pocket could not have been used in his prosecution because the police violated his constitutional rights.
But, this case now allows the police to use the evidence in prosecution, even if the original stop was illegal. The Supreme Court expanded a rule called the “attenuation doctrine” so a court will now consider three factors to decide if the police can use the evidence:
- temporal proximity (timing between the police’s illegal activity and finding the evidence);
- intervening circumstances (the relationship between the reason for finding the evidence and the illegal activity); and
- purpose and flagrancy of misconduct (what kind of illegal activity did the police do).
This test is very dangerous for ordinary citizens, because it gives the police an incentive to conduct illegal searches with the possibility of finding very bad evidence.
For example, the police could pull over a car for no reason, with the hope that the driver has an arrest warrant, past due child support, or drugs in the car. Essentially, it will reward the police for making illegal stops, as long as the illegal activity is minor (stopping you on the street or pulling your car over) and does not relate to the reason for the illegal search (they stop you while driving, but find that you have bail violations for other crimes).
The Court's full decision is below: