About a month ago, we discussed a relatively new decision handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States. This case, titled Utah v. Strieff, turned on the use of the exclusionary rule, also known as the doctrine of ‘fruit of the poisonous tree,’ which keeps law enforcement in Georgia and across the country from using evidence that is gleaned from searches that stem from an illegal act by police. The decision in Streiff, however, modified that rule, by extending the scope of something called, in the legal field, the ‘attenuation doctrine.’
Generally speaking, the attenuation doctrine exists so that if a lot of time passes after an illegal act of law enforcement, or some event occurs between the time of an illegal stop or search and the discovery of evidence of a crime, and that event sufficiently ‘attenuates’ the criminal evidence from the original search, the evidence will not be subject to the exclusionary rule — there are some other reasons SCOTUS has articulated for the attenuation doctrine, which are beyond the scope of this blog. One example might be an illegal stop made without reasonable suspicion, after which a suspect then pulls a gun without provocation, and the gun turns out to be an illegal firearm. The suspect’s act of pulling the gun on the officers may be an act that attenuates the gun from the illegal search, thereby rendering it admissible.In Streiff, however, the decision of SCOTUS relied upon the attenuation doctrine to find evidence admissible not because of some act by the suspect himself, but by the police. In the case, an outstanding warrant was found after the illegal stop, which, according to Court made the evidence found in the search admissible as an exception to the exclusionary rule. In this finding, the court relied not on the ‘temporal (or time) proximity’ of the search, but on the fact that the arrest warrant had been issued preceding the illegal stop in the case, and that according to the Court, it was the arrest and not the illegal stop that led to the search, the evidence found was admissible.
One could, of course argue that but for the illegal stop, the warrant would never have been discovered, but this was apparently unpersuasive to SCOTUS in this case. This decision is likely to have some impact on Georgia criminal case, especially those involving drug crimes, as these often involve evidence found after a stop for some other alleged violation. However, it remains to be seen exactly how this use of the attenuation doctrine will be applied, and those facing such charges may wish to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.