In an unfortunate turn, the United States Supreme Court recently held that evidence obtained as a result of an illegal police stop may not have to be suppressed in a subsequent trial of the person who is stopped. This decision broadens the exceptions to the general rule that if police illegally obtain evidence against a person, that evidence cannot later be used against him or her criminally. After this decision, unless there is flagrant police misconduct, the police can now stop a person illegally, and upon discovery of an outstanding warrant, search the person.
In the case before the Court, the defendant was stopped after he had left a suspected drug house, which had been under police surveillance. The police lacked reasonable suspicion to believe the defendant was doing anything wrong, which made the stop illegal. The officer checked the defendant’s name through the police system and discovered that he had an outstanding warrant for a minor traffic matter. The police officer then searched the defendant and discovered drugs. The defendant was convicted on drug charges but his conviction was overturned by the highest court in his state due to the illegal stop. The Supreme Court, however, held that the officer’s discovery of the outstanding warrant broke the connection between the unconstitutional illegal stop and the evidence that was discovered in the search. The government could therefore use the evidence found at the man’s trial.
Generally, under the exclusionary rule, evidence found after an illegal search or seizure is referred to as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” and cannot be used against the defendant. Courts have gradually created exceptions to the exclusionary rule, however, including the following:
- Attenuation – if the connection between the evidence and the illegal search is sufficiently broken or distant, the evidence may be used at trial against the defendant;
- Good faith – the police may use evidence obtained even though a search warrant was improperly issued if the police believed in good faith when they executed the warrant that the warrant was valid;
- Inevitable discovery – evidence obtained illegally may be used against a defendant if it would have been discovered through lawful means anyway;
- Independent source – allows evidence to be used against a defendant where the evidence is obtained through another lawful source; and,
The exception in the Supreme Court case above was under the attenuation doctrine.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is concerning because of the implications it has for anyone with an outstanding warrant, for any offense, no matter how minor. If the police can stop you and then look for a reason to arrest you and search you, it weakens the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment.
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If you have been arrested and charged with a federal or state crime in New York, you need a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. If evidence was seized that may be used against you, you should speak with an attorney who knows the law and is experienced in contesting the admission of illegally obtained evidence. Contact experienced Syracuse criminal defense attorney George F. Hildebrandt for a consultation.