One of the hallmarks of the American criminal justice system is the development of what is called the Exclusionary Rule: the legal principle that says that evidence obtained by the police through unconstitutional actions should not be admitted at trial against a criminal defendant. This rule helps protect our liberties as Americans by not rewarding the government for the actions it takes in violation of our constitutional rights. In recent years, however, the courts have been chipping away at the protections of the Exclusionary Rule, and this past week the US Supreme Court went another step in this direction by ruling that evidence may be admissible against a defendant if the police illegally stop a person but later find an outstanding warrant against the person. With such erosion of our constitutional protections, it is all the more important that defendants obtain experienced and tough criminal defense representation to protect their rights at trial.
The Facts of Utah v. Strieff
The Supreme Court's decision in Utah v. Strieff was based on a 2006 arrest and search of a man in South Salt Lake City, Utah during which a police officer found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. The police officer initially had no reasonable suspicion to stop the man, and thus stopping him was a violation of the man's constitutional rights under the 4th Amendment protection against illegal searches and seizures. After the police officer stopped the man and asked him to produce identification, the officer ran his information and found that there was an outstanding warrant for the man's arrest. The officer then conducted what is called a "search incident to a lawful arrest" of the man and found the contraband. The Supreme Court ruled in Strieff that, even though the initial stop of the man was illegal, the contraband that was found in the search following the illegal stop could be admitted against the man in court.
The Erosion of the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine
Again, the Exclusionary Rule is a long-held principle of American law preventing prosecutors from using evidence obtained by police through unconstitutional means. Along with the Exclusionary Rule, the doctrine of "the fruit of the poisonous tree" says that any evidence obtained indirectly as a result of an illegal search or seizure cannot be admitted either. For example, if the police raided your house without a warrant and found a map leading to a storage room full of contraband, they could not the contraband from the storage room admitted at trial.