Utah v. Strieff and Riley v. California

Two Important New Precedents for Criminal Lawyers

While drafting a couple of motions to suppress this week, I ran across two cases recently decided by the Supreme Court, that both deal with important issues for searches by law enforcement.

The first, Utah v. Strieff deals with Narcotics detectives who recovered narcotics and drug paraphernalia from an apparently unlawful investigatory stop. In this case, the specific reason for the stop was because they witnessed the suspect leave a house that was suspected of selling drugs.   Usually, police officers cannot simply stop people, or suspects because of this reason, though this reason, or others like it are typically used by law enforcement for racial profiling. However, in this particular case, the court held that the evidence seized from the suspect was admissible, because of a pre-existing arrest warrant. All in all, the court held that if there is no flagrant police misconduct, and a police officer finds a valid arrest warrant on a suspect, then evidence seized because of that arrest is admissible, even if its unconstitutional. This is troubling for a number of reasons. First, in light of the racially charged circumstances taking place throughout the United States, the requirement of “flagrant police misconduct” is left open to interpretation by the courts. This creates a whole host of problems, especially which the lack of liability assigned to law enforcement by the courts recently. Secondly, from a defense lawyer’s perspective, all that prosecutors will have to prove in court is that the discovery of the warrant attenuated the connection between the unlawful stop and the evidence. Pretty low bar to clear in my opinion. [Ed. note: take care of those warrants before driving: help your lawyer help you!]

The second case, Riley v. California, is a case that deals with cellphone evidence. As people prove to be increasingly dependent on smartphones, as well as other cellular devices, this case sets a precedent that could prove to be very helpful for criminal defense attorneys. In Riley v. California, the Supreme Court ruled that the search of electronic data on a cellphone seized pursuant to an arrest is unconstitutional. For possible clients reading this, or people in general, do NOT give away consent for law enforcement to search your cellphone. The right to hand it over to them is yours, but in most cases, it will not help you. For attorneys, simply keep this in mind. For an in-depth analysis of Riley, take a look at Drew Willey’s Defender article.

I hope that the understanding of these two cases will prove to not only be helpful for attorneys, but for people of all ages, race, and creed in general.