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How Utah v. Strieff weakens the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine

On June 20, 2016, the United States Supreme Court, in Utah v. Strieff, limited your 4th Amendment Right against unreasonable search and seizures by trimming back the branches of the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine. However, before you can understand what the Supreme Court did and how it effects you, you need to understand What your 4th amendment rights are, and what the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine means.

Your 4th Amendment Right Protecting You Against Unreasonable Search and Seizure

Under the United States Constitution, you have a privacy right against government intrusion into your life. This right manifests itself in the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the government and police from searching you unless (1) it is reasonable to do so, and (2) preferably with a search warrant.

Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine

What happens, however, when the police obtain evidence which is found was obtained through an unreasonable search? Evidence that was obtained by an unreasonable search when the police did not have legitimate grounds to believe that you were doing anything wrong or breaking any laws. Well, the evidence is unusable in court under the exclusionary rule as fruit of he poisonous tree; i.e., evidence obtained in derogation of 4th amendment protections cannot be used in court to prosecute those charged with crimes.

Until the Supreme Court ruled in Utah v. Strieff, evidence found by police officers after illegal stops could not be used even when the police subsequently learned that the person had a warrant for his or her arrest and the search was done incident to an arrest. However, the court in Utah v. Strieff ruled that the arrest warrant “attenuated,” or neutralized, the illegality of the initial stop. Consequently, searches done after an unjustified stop and also after the officer learns that there is an arrest warrant, do not violate the Fourth Amendment when the warrant is valid and unconnected to the conduct that prompted the stop.

The facts of Utah v. Strieff

The facts in Utah v. Strieff were that the police were surveilling a house in South Salt Lake, Utah based on an anonymous tip of “narcotics activity” there. After Edward Strieff left the house the police demand that he stop walking and asked his name. The police had no evidence that Mr. Strieff was involved in , top walking after Strieff had left the house and demanded Strieff provide his name to him. The officer made no attempt to ascertain how long Strieff had been in the house or to otherwise determine if Strieff had committed any crime within the house. The police then ran a check and discovered a warrant for a minor traffic violation. Strieff was arrested on the warrant, and during the search incident to the arrest found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. The question for the justices was whether the drugs must be suppressed given the unlawful initial stop or whether they could be used as evidence given the arrest for the traffic warrant.

The Attenuation Doctrine

Although the Utah v. Strieff decision expands what is brought into evidence at trial to use against you to prove your guilt, a warrant for arrest is not the first time the high court as ruled that information subsequently learned after an unreasonable search and seizure attenuates the illegality of the initial stop.

The attenuation doctrine applies to things such as evidence obtained during a physical struggle with the police, excited utterances, spontaneous confessions, consenting to the continuation of the stop, consenting to a search, and many other ways as well.

How to Protect Yourself and Assert your 4th Amendment Rights

The simplest way to assert all of your constitutional rights is to never answer police questions, never talk to the police, never show them your ID unless you are placed under arrest or are driving a vehicle, never consent to searches, when seized (stopped) by the police always ask if you are being detained or if you are free to leave, and always tell the police officer that you are not going to answer any questions without speaking to a lawyer.