Evidence from an Illegal Stop Can Still Be Used Against You, Says Supreme Court

Charlotte Criminal Lawyer Brad Smith answers the question: “If I have an outstanding warrant, what should I do?”


We previously covered the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota that addressed the legality of blood tests performed on individuals pulled over under suspicion of driving while impaired. While that decision wasn’t exactly a home run in terms of defendant rights, it was far and away a more solid win than the Court’s decision three (3) days prior in Utah v. Strieff.

Apartment Fire Escape Charlotte Criminal LawyerYou see, Strieff also concerned a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights in the context of unreasonable stops by law enforcement. Unfortunately, this opinion also continues to underscore the unpredictability of Fourth Amendment rulings from our nation’s highest court in its current eight-justice formulation.


Facts of the case

In Strieff, police had received an anonymous tip that drug deals were taking place in a particular residential apartment building. A narcotics detective surveilled the building intermittently over the course of a week, and saw what he regarded as a “suspicious” number of people entering for very short visits and then leaving. This is behavior that law enforcement is allowed to consider indicative of drug activity, but without more it is typically not enough to produce the reasonable suspicion necessary to stop, search, question or otherwise detain someone.

While observing the people coming and going from the apartment building, the detective saw Edward Strieff emerge from the building and stopped him.

There was no indication that the officer knew Strieff to be one of the building’s short-term visitors. The State even stipulated, or offered without argument, to the upper courts that the detective lacked any reasonable suspicion to legally stop and question Strieff (the illegal stop constitutes a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment). This makes the outcome and implications of this case even more worrisome.

Despite having no legal cause to stop Strieff, the detective asked him for identification. The officer then called Strieff’s identification information into dispatch and learned that there was an outstanding arrest warrant out for Strieff—for a traffic violation. This nevertheless gave the officer probable cause to arrest Strieff for the outstanding warrant.

In his search incident to arrest of Strieff’s person, the detective found drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine. Once Strieff was charged with possession of these items, he asserted that they should be suppressed, or kept out of court as evidence against him, because they were a result from the illegal stop.



The United States Supreme Court held, in a 5-3 opinion, that the evidence found on Strieff was legally admissible as evidence against him.

Normally, when the police violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, the evidence is suppressed under what is called the Exclusionary Rule. However, there are certain exceptions to the Exclusionary Rule that permit illegally-obtained evidence to come into court. One of these exceptions is the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, which states, among other things, that illegally-obtained evidence may be admissible if an intervening circumstance happens in between the initial illegal conduct (in this case, Strieff’s gaining possession of the meth and paraphernalia) and the finding of the evidence. An intervening circumstance usually contributes to the police’s discovery of the evidence.

The rationale behind this exception is that if the intervening circumstances causally attenuates the police’s Fourth Amendment violation (the illegal stopping of Strieff) and the evidence discovered. However, many courts up until this point have interpreted an intervening circumstance as being a voluntary act in that moment by the defendant, such as a confession or consent to search.

Here, neither of these things was present. However, the Court held that the fact that the arrest warrant merely existed at the time of the detective’s illegal stop provided an intervening circumstance that justified the illegal search. This was even though the evidence the detective found was in no way connected to Strieff’s outstanding arrest warrant (again—the warrant was for a mere traffic violation).



Justice Sotamayor, in a blistering dissent, criticized the Strieff opinion as being absurdly broad and dangerous in its implications for defendants. There are, as she pointed out, an extremely large number of outstanding warrants for minor offenses out at any given time. This opinion gives police an incentive to stop individuals for no legal reason in hopes of then finding an outstanding warrant so that police may search that person incident to arrest. This danger is even greater in situations where police racially profile which people to stop.


If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, please contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC. Our attorneys stand at the ready to defend you against state or federal charges. Please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828   or find additional resources here.


About the Author

Brad Smith Charlotte Criminal and DWI LawyerBrad Smith is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of criminal defense, DUI / DWI defense and traffic defense.

Mr. Smith was born and raised in Charlotte. He began his legal career as an Assistant District Attorney before entering private practice in 2006.

In his free time, Mr. Smith enjoys traveling, boating, golf, hiking and spending time with his wife and three children.






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