As a criminal defense attorney, one of the first things checked for in a case that comes across my desk, is whether or not my client’s constitutional rights have been violated. One of the most common violations seen is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment guarantees and protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Decades of case law has been decided by the courts to determine what exactly that amendment guarantees and what exceptions and justifications exist for searches that presumptively violate the Fourth Amendment. It is one recent United States Supreme Court case, however, that is of importance and concern for criminal defense attorneys.
Typically, when an officer executes a traffic stop, they must do so for a legitimate reason or else the stop and any evidence discovered after the stop could be suppressed, or thrown out by the judge. For instance, an officer alleges that a driver failed to maintain driving within a single lane and that officer then decides to pull that driver over. During the stop, the officer smells marijuana and searches the vehicle only to discover some illegal drugs within the car. Upon review of the dash cam video of the officer’s car, it is abundantly clear that the driver did not commit the alleged traffic violation. Therefore, the officer conducted an unlawful stop and any evidence that resulted from it should be thrown out by the judge.
Now, let’s add another layer of facts to the above scenario. What if the driver had a valid warrant for a speeding ticket he did not pay back in 2005? Would that change anything? For the longest time, the law said no. However, in 2016, the Supreme Court reached a decision that severely limited the protections afforded to citizens under the Fourth Amendment.
In Utah v. Strieff, an officer conducted a search of a man he had unlawfully detained and discovered drugs on his person. Strieff claimed violations of his Fourth Amendment rights as the stop was unlawful to begin with and any evidence discovered within the course of that stop should not be considered by the courts. However, Strieff also had an active warrant out for his arrest do to an unpaid traffic citation. The United States Supreme Court held that the stop, even though unlawful, was so attenuated from the discovery of the drug evidence that the evidence should not be excluded.
Despite a strong dissent that points out that the probability that any vehicle operating on the roadways contains a driver with an outstanding warrant is extremely high and to allow for that to attenuate the unlawful stop and search would be a “systematic violation” of the Fourth Amendment by police misconduct. The Supreme Court decided against this policy and thus it is the current state of the law. However, if there is a finding of “purposeful or flagrant” police misconduct then this shifts the weight of the three factor test used by the Supreme Court in Strieff to outweigh the intervening circumstance of the discovery of an outstanding warrant.
This change in the law has allowed for a large number of defendants in alleged crimes to be charged and even convicted based on unlawful searches and seizures merely because a warrant existed at the time of arrest. It is important that when you are facing a crime the criminal defense lawyer in Arlington, TX you hire to help aid in your defense be apprised of the changes in law so that they can better advise you during the pendency of your case.
Thanks to Brandy Austin Law Firm, PLLC for their insight into criminal defense and the fourth amendment.