U.S. Supreme Court to Review Utah Drug Sales Case

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution ensures “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and provides that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” The U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether that Constitutional right was violated in the search and arrest of defendant Edward Strieff, Jr., who was charged with selling drugs out of his South Salt Lake home in 2006.

Supreme Court to Settle Fourth Amendment Questions Arising from Utah Drug Search

The sequence of events which eventually brought the case of Edward Strieff, Jr. to the United States Supreme Court tells of a winding legal battle which began nearly a decade ago.

In December 2006, detective Doug Fackrell received an anonymous tip that 50-year-old Strieff, Jr. was selling drugs out of his home in South Salt Lake. Fackrell subsequently placed the home under surveillance for about a week.

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On one occasion where Strieff, Jr. exited the building, he was stopped and questioned by Fackrell – who had observed multiple visitors quickly entering and exiting – about his involvement in the alleged drug sales. During questioning, Fackrell arrested Strieff, Jr. on an outstanding traffic warrant. Upon conducting a search, Fackrell uncovered paraphernalia and a baggie of methamphetamine in Strieff, Jr.’s pockets.

Strieff, Jr. challenged the legality of the arrest and moved to suppress the evidence, stating that Fackrell lacked reasonable suspicion. A district court agreed, finding that Fackrell indeed lacked sufficient evidence to question Strieff, Jr. However, at the same time, the court also found that the search was justified by Strieff, Jr.’s outstanding warrant, and thus denied the motion.

Strieff, Jr. appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals, which upheld the district court’s decision. Strieff, Jr. then appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, which unanimously reversed the appellate court’s decision in January 2015.

Now, the Utah Attorney General’s Office is appealing to the United States Supreme Court, whose highly-anticipated decision will bring legal closure to this long and arduous dispute over the potential infringement of Strieff, Jr.’s Constitutional rights.

The Attenuation Rule: Using Inadmissible Evidence

As the Utah Attorney General’s Office noted in an October, 1 press release, it is extremely rare for the U.S. Supreme Court to grant petitions for writs of certiorari. On average, only about 75 in 10,000 petitions – less than 1% – are granted on a yearly basis.

However, the Strieff, Jr. case is of paramount importance, as the outcome of this decision will impact how the provisions of the Fourth Amendment are applied to countless criminal cases in the future. The matter now laid before the Supreme Court is to determine whether evidence – in this case, methamphetamine and a pipe – should be suppressed because the stop which uncovered the warrant failed to meet the standard for reasonable suspicion.

“Strieff’s arrest on an outstanding warrant was an intervening circumstance that justifies use of the evidence at trial,” said Attorney General Sean Reyes, “and we welcome the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of this matter.”

Justice Thomas Lee, writing in the opinion of the Utah Supreme Court, summed up the case as follows (though we’ve inserted some commas and numbering for greater clarity):

“The essential fact pattern involves [1] an unlawful detention, [2] leading to the discovery of an arrest warrant, [3] followed by a search incident to arrest. The attenuation inquiry is essentially a proximate cause analysis. It asks whether the fruit of the search is tainted by the initial, unlawful detention, or whether the taint is dissipated by an intervening circumstance.”

“Attenuation” is usually thought of as a physics term, but in a legal context, the “attenuation rule” holds that even if evidence was obtained illegally, it can still potentially be admissible if the link between the the evidence itself and the illegal method of obtaining the evidence is weak enough.

Translated into plainer speech, this is essentially what Justice Lee is asking: does the evidence become inadmissible (“tainted”) because Strieff, Jr.’s detention by Fackrell was unlawful? Or is the inadmissibility of the evidence negated by the fact that Fackrell had a warrant (i.e. the “intervening circumstance”), as A.G. Reyes asserts?

It’s a question the United States Supreme Court will soon have to answer.

If you’ve been charged with drug crimes in Salt Lake City, it is absolutely critical that your Constitutional rights are being protected by an aggressive, experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense attorney. To set up a free and completely confidential legal consultation, call criminal lawyer Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287 right away. Darwin is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is able to make emergency visits to jails and holding centers.