Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Utah v. Strieff: An 8 member court and the reach of the Fourth Amendment on searches

By David TaylorPublished April 15, 2016

With the death of Antonin Scalia and the possible of a 4v4 tie the future of the Fourth Amendment's defense against illegal searches is in jeopardy. In Utah vs. Strieff the exclusionary rule for evidence discovered during illegal stops has come into question. The implications of a victory for Utah could fundamentally change the relationship between law enforcement and the public.

    The Supreme Court recently heard arguments on the 4th Amendment case Utah v. Strieff. (1)The case brings into question the use of the exclusionary rule: evidence discovered as a result of a 4th Amendment violation is suppressed. This rule is meant to deter the police from breaking the law to obtain evidence. The lawyers representing Utah argued that the officer's mistake in stopping Mr. Strieff as a ‘Terry stop' was a reasonable mistake and the suppression of the evidence found after the search is a greater harm than the police deterrent effect of excluding this evidence. (3) A Terry stop by definition is a brief detention of a person by law enforcement on a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, but does not have probable cause for a search or an arrest. The stop in question in this case was not a legal Terry stop based on the officer lacking reasonable individual suspicion. However Streiff had a warrant out for a minor traffic violation and thus the search resulting in this illegal stop of his person after the arrest was legal.

    The language the lawyers for Utah used is derived from a similar 2008 case Herring v. United States in which a clerical error, the warrant out for Herring in the system was a mistake, led to an unlawful arrest and uncovered evidence. The court's ruling in Herring set precedent that evidence obtained under police mistakes that were isolated negligence rather than a systematic error or disregard of constitutional rights do not violate a criminal defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. The court's ruling concluded the test of deterrence on the exclusionary rule was used as the Officers based on the information they had, made a ‘good' stop and the resulting evidence that was uncovered, though stemming from a isolated mistake wasn't a threat to the deterrent effect of the exclusionary rule. (2) A ruling in Utah v. Strieff could take precedent a step further in lessening the scope of Fourth Amendment protections.

    The lawyers for Strieff as well as Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan argued that the extension of this argument would give too much latitude to law enforcement, especially in areas with high percentage of citizens with outstanding warrants. If the court sides with Utah, the lawfulness of the stop will not come into question when deciding the admissibility of the evidence; solely the lawfulness of the search will be considered.

    With the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the result of this case is up in the air. Recent attacks by conservatives on the scope of the 4th Amendment are in favor of more power and discretion of law enforcement. A 4v4 tie would hold up the ruling of the Utah Supreme Court, ruling that the evidence could not be used as the initial stop was not supported by reasonable individual suspicion.

    A victory for Utah would be a devastating blow for the protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment and could substantially impact the relationship the Police have within communities. As highlighted by justice Sotomayor and Kagan during oral arguments the removal of the exclusionary rule in this case could incentivize police officers to make more unlawful stops; especially in neighborhoods where a high percentage of the residents have outstanding warrants. The removal of this deterrent could have a negative impact on the already strained relationship between law enforcement and the people in these communities.