by Ryan Walsh
The Fourth amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Traditionally, evidence found after a 4th amendment violation is excluded under what is known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. That is, any evidence recovered after a fourth amendment violation occurs is suppressed by the court and cannot be used against the defendant in his case. However, in the last ten years the United States Supreme Court has limited this exclusionary “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine to situations where exclusion is the last resort by highlighting a number of exceptions.
Exceptions to the exclusionary rule under federal law include when an officer acts in good faith in what he believes is a legal search, when evidence is acquired through an independent source, when evidence would inevitably been discovered without the unconstitutional source, and the attenuation doctrine. The attenuation doctrine states that evidence is admissible when the connection between the 4th amendment violation and the evidence found is distant or the connection between the 4th amendment violation has been interrupted by a change in circumstances. The recent United States Supreme Court opinion, Utah vs. Strieff directly addresses the attenuation doctrine, creating situations where intervening circumstances cause Georgia citizens to be subject to searches and seizures that would otherwise be unreasonable under the Fourth amendment of the United States Constitution. Utah vs. Strieff, 579 U.S. ___ (2016).
In Utah, Edward Strieff left a home on foot that had been tied to drug activity and walked to a gas station. Officer Fackrell, who had been surveilling the home, approached Strieff, identified himself, asked Strieff for identification, detained him, and then questioned him regarding what he was doing at the residence. Officer Fackrell gave Strieff’s information to a police dispatcher, who told Fackrell that Strieff had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Strieff was arrested and a search of his person was performed incident to the arrest, where Officer Fackrell found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia on Strieff. Strieff then moved to suppress the evidence of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. The State of Utah conceded that Officer Fackrell did not have reasonable suspicion for the stop, but argued that because of the arrest warrant, the connection between the unlawful stop and the search had been attenuated and the search incident to arrest and seizure were valid under the Fourth Amendment.
The United States Supreme Court agreed with the State of Utah. Despite the fact that the stop of Strieff was unlawful, the Court held that the valid arrest warrant created a change in circumstances that “attenuated” the illegal stop from the valid search and seizure. In looking towards whether there was a sufficient change in circumstances between the conduct that violated the fourth amendment and the discovery of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia on Strieff, the Court looked to three factors. The three factors are (1) “the temporal proximity between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence, (2) the presence of intervening circumstances, and (3) the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct.” Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 603-604 (1975). The Court found that factor one favored Strieff in that the time between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of evidence was very brief. But the Court found that factors two and three favored the State. The existence of a valid arrest warrant was a significant intervening circumstance, and that Officer Fackrell was at most negligent in his stopping of Strieff outside the gas station. In discussing Officer Fackrell’s negligence, the Court addresses what they call his “good-faith mistakes.” Therefore, the evidence seized by Officer Fackrell was admissible at trial against Strieff. Now that we’ve analyzed the law applied by the United States Supreme Court, is the holding in Utah v. Strieff applicable to Georgia citizens?
Georgia’s restrictions on searches and seizures are greater than the protections provided by the United States Government. Georgia codified their exclusionary rule in O.C.G.A. §17-5-30. The language in that statute provides no good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. Further, Georgia courts don’t officially recognize any specific exceptions to the exclusionary rule, but they do offer their rationale in determining whether evidence that could be excluded as “fruit of the poisonous tree” will be excluded. That rationale is most clearly articulated in Vergara v. State. Vergara v. State, 283 Ga 175 (2008). In Vergara, the Supreme Court of Georgia says, “Under the fruits doctrine as
explicated by the (United States) Supreme Court and adopted by this Court, we need not hold that all evidence is ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ simply because it would not have come to light but for the illegal actions of the police. … The more apt question … is ‘whether… the evidence … has been come at by exploitation of that illegality or instead by means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged by the primary taint.’” Vergara, at 182-183.
Applying the absence of a good-faith exception along with the guidance provided in Vergara, it’s unclear what Georgia courts would do if presented with the facts of Strieff. Edward Strieff was approached by Officer Fackrell and asked for his identification, which he provided. Fackrell ran his identification and saw the outstanding warrant, arrested, Strieff, and found the contraband. Because there is no good-faith exception to unreasonable searches and seizures under Georgia law, Officer Fackrell cannot be said to be merely negligent in his stop of Strieff. The evidence was clearly found as a direct result of the bad stop. And the evidence is of the sort that may not have been found independently or inevitably. There are strong arguments that this sort of evidence is still fruit of the poisonous tree under Georgia’s application of the Fourth Amendment.
However, until Georgia addresses this issue, it is unclear whether a valid arrest warrant can trigger a search incident to arrest for an otherwise unlawful stop. If you’ve been arrested and feel your Georgia rights have been violated, call the Peach State Lawyer today for a free consultation at 404-581-0999.