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SCOTUS makes major decision concerning evidence from illegal stops

While the majority of the news coverage relating to the Supreme Court of the United States has understandably been focused on the controversial decision handed down by a divided bench in United States v. Texas and its implications going forward, it's important not to overlook some of the other significant decisions reached by the nation's high court during the current term.

By way of example, consider the Supreme Court's decision in Utah v. Strieff, a case examining the scope of the exclusionary rule, the longstanding legal imperative dictating that any evidence secured by law enforcement officials in violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures cannot be admitted into evidence.

According to the facts of the case, police in Salt Lake City received an anonymous tip of drug-related activity at a home located in the city's south side back in December 2006. A single officer responded to the tip and began to monitor the house in question for several hours over a roughly seven-day timeframe.

The observing officer ultimately made the decision to stop and question the next person he saw leaving the home, which turned out to be the defendant, informing him of his reasons for the stop and requesting identification.

The officer ran a check on the defendant and discovered that he had an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation, whereupon he conducted a search that uncovered illegal narcotics.

The defendant sought to have the drug evidence excluded, but the trial court denied the motion, a decision later affirmed by the Utah Court of Appeals. The Utah Supreme Court, however, reversed the decision, holding that the evidence could not be admitted under the exclusionary rule given the police officer's lack of reasonable suspicion for the initial stop.

In a 5-3 decision, however, SCOTUS reversed the decision of the Utah Supreme Court.

Here, Justice Thomas wrote that even though the police officer's initial stop was indeed unlawful, there wasn't evidence that it was part of any systemic or ongoing police misconduct. In fact, the justices found that that the facts showed it to be an "isolated instance of negligence that occurred in connection with a bona fide investigation of a suspected drug house."

Thomas' opinion goes on to declare that the "discovery of the arrest warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence seized from [the defendant] incident to arrest." In other words, the police officer's subsequent discovery of the arrest warrant made the search that uncovered the drugs constitutionally permissible.

One of the more notable aspects of the Supreme Court's decision is the highly critical 12-page dissenting opinion penned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who argued that the decision would only worsen the problem of illegal stops.

"[T]his case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification and check it for outstanding traffic warrants -- even if you are doing nothing wrong, " she wrote. "If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant."

As is demonstrated by this case, the law is always changing. As such, those facing criminal charges need to know that their legal representative is aware of these changes and how it may affect their case. At the Law Offices of Mark L. Horwitz, P.A., we have a comprehensive understanding of the law -- and its evolution -- and will fight to protect your future.