One of the Most Important Reasons to Resolve Your Warrant

U.S. Supreme Court excuses unlawful police stop due to suspect’s outstanding arrest warrant: How to protect your rights if you have a warrant

The aftershocks still linger following U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s eruptive and indignant dissent in this case:

 “The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants—even if you are doing nothing wrong…”  

– Justice Sonia Sotomayor, US Supreme Court

The incident began with an unlawful police stop of a man leaving a private residence.

The suspect was arrested after the police officer learned the suspect had an outstanding warrant.

Illegal drugs were found in the suspect’s possession, after the officer searched him.

The search was conducted incidental to the arrest, as a result of the outstanding warrant for a traffic violation.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that even though the stop was unlawful, it was not flagrant.

So they allowed the drug evidence to be admitted and used against the suspect to prosecute the illegal drug possession charges.

In this article we outline the case, the U.S. Supreme Court decision, and how it impacts your 4th Amendment rights, especially if you have an outstanding warrant for arrest. 

Legal Terms

Being familiar with the two legal topics that were central to this case, will provide a better understanding of the ruling:

They are the: 1.) Exclusionary Rule; and 2) Attenuation Doctrine.

1). Exclusionary Rule – In order for police to make a lawful stop, to question a person related to a crime, the officer was must “reasonable suspicion” that a crime occurred.

If the police officer lacks reasonable suspicion of a person’s involvement in a crime then the stop is unlawful.

In that case, one remedy courts have recognized to right the wrong is to excluded or suppressed any evidence obtained after the unlawful stop.

That means that the evidence can’t be used against the defendant.  This remedy is known as the exclusionary rule.    The exclusionary rule is designed to deter police from making unlawful stops.

When material evidence is excluded, it often leads to a dismissal of charges.

The courts recognize the need to maintain proper balance.  Their intents is to ensure that punishing the state, by excluding the evidence found after an unlawful stop, does not outweigh public safety and other related social factors.

For this reason there are a few exceptions to the exclusionary rule.   This means that following an illegal stop in which the court may have excluded or suppressed the evidence, certain exceptions may apply.

Those exceptions would allow for the evidence which was obtained following an unlawful stop, to be admitted.

2). Attenuation Doctrine – One exception adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court is what is known as the Attenuation Doctrine.

Put simply, it means that police wrongdoing may be dismissed or excused due to extenuating circumstances, that weren’t related to the stop or search.

To the contrary, if a police officer makes an unlawful stop, searches the suspect, and then finds illegal drugs, that evidence would not be admissible, because search and seizure were directly connected to the unlawful stop.

The US Supreme Court determined that the Attenuation Doctrine applied here because the outstanding arrest warrant interrupted the connection between the unlawful stop and the discovery of drug evidence in the suspect’s possession.

Overview of U.S. Supreme Court Case   

Under the exclusionary rule, courts suppress evidence gathered in violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be protected from unlawful searches and seizures.

This rule applies to unlawful police stops.  However, there are several exceptions to the exclusionary rule.

In this case, the US Supreme Court considered the Attenuation Doctrine as an exception that applied so that the evidence could not be suppressed or excluded.

A narcotics detective in Utah had been conducting surveillance on a house, based on an anonymous tip about the possibility of illegal drug activity.

During the week, he’d seen several people visiting the house, and he suspected that the people who lived in the house were dealing drugs.

After seeing the defendant leave the house, the detective detained him nearby, identified himself, and asked what he was doing there.

The officer asked for identification and sent it to a dispatcher.

The dispatcher advised that the defendant had an outstanding arrest warrant for a traffic violation.

The detective arrested the defendant based on the outstanding warrant for arrest.

Then the officer searched the suspect, incidental to the arrest.

The court cited Arizona v. Gant, 2009, which outlines permissive scope of searches incidental to arrest which includes purposes of law enforcement and public safety.

The officer found drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine (meth).

The suspect was consequently charged with possessing drug paraphernalia and meth.

The defendant’s attorney filed a motion to suppress this evidence on the grounds that it came from an illegal investigatory stop.

The prosecution agreed there was no reasonable suspicion for the stop.  However, it argued that the arrest warrant attenuated the link between the illegal stop and the discovery of drugs.

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the meth and paraphernalia evidence for two reasons:  First, the existence of the arrest warrant was an extraordinary intervening circumstance.  And second, the detective was legitimately investigating a suspected drug house and had not committed any flagrant misconduct.

The defendant pleaded guilty but reserved the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress the drug evidence found incidental to his arrest based on the arrest warrant for the unrelated drug matter.

The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny the motion to suppress the evidence.

The defendant appealed to the State’s Supreme Court.  The Utah Supreme Court reversed the decision, and ordered that the evidence be suppressed.  It held that only a voluntary act by the defendant, such as a confession, could sufficiently break the connection between an illegal search and discovery of evidence.

The Appeals court determined that the detective’s discovery of the arrest warrant couldn’t be considered a voluntary act by the defendant.

The State then appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The Court considered whether the attenuation doctrine applies when the police make an unlawful investigatory stop, then learn that the person has an outstanding warrant, and consequently arrest the suspect and seize incriminating evidence.

The US Supreme Court reversed the decision.  It held that there are many exceptions to the exclusionary rule, including the attenuation doctrine.

It that this exclusionary can apply if the link between the unlawful police actions, and the evidence found, has been interrupted, in a way interest protected by the Fourth Amendment, would not be served by suppressing the evidence.

The Court explained that the attenuation doctrine looks at the causal link between unlawful actions by the government and the discovery of evidence, and reasoned that it often has is not relative to the suspect’s independent actions.

Thus, the US Supreme Court did not agree with the Appeals court.  Instead, it decoded that cases where the attenuation doctrine applies should not be limited to those involving independent acts, such as a confession by the defendant.

Citing Brown v. Illinois 1975, the court considered three factors: (1) the time that passed between the unconstitutional act and the discovery of the evidence, (2) the existence of intervening circumstances, and (3) the goal and flagrancy of the officer’s misconduct.

The Court determined that the warrant broke the causal chain between the unconstitutional stop by the detective and the discovery of the meth.

It explained that the warrant existed before the illegal stop, and that met the requirements of a valid warrant.

Once the detective learned of the warrant, he was obliged to arrest the defendant.

Once the officer arrested the suspect, it was legal to search him incident to his arrest as a safety measure.

The Court further explained that at most, the detective’s actions were negligent and didn’t rise to the level of misconduct, and that the officer made two mistakes in good faith.

Those mistakes included 1) The fact that the officer did not keep track of how long the suspect had been in the house; and 2) The officer should have asked the suspect if he could speak with him, instead of ordering him to do so.

The US Supreme Court acknowledged that mistakes were made both in stopping and questioning the suspect.  But they noted that the stop was not flagrant, and everything after the stop was lawful.

The defendant argued that the suspect was stopped only so that the detective could fish for evidence.

The Court pointed out that the detective was investigating a house with occupants legitimately suspected of drug dealing.

The Court held the evidence was admissible and reversed the Utah Supreme Court’s judgment.

Impact of Case on Police Stops in Arizona

In general, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision involves Constitutional rights, the potential exists for it to have future impacts as a precedent case in states, including Arizona.

This particular ruling could likely  impact Arizona judges’ reasoning in connection with the attenuation doctrine.

The Arizona Supreme Court considered a similar case in the past. In the 2011 case of State v. Hummons, the Arizona Supreme Court considered a case in which an officer discovered an arrest warrant for an individual during a consensual stop.

In that case the officer arrested him and found drugs in his possession, incidental to the arrest.

The trial court had denied a motion to suppress on the basis that the stop was consensual.

The appellate court affirmed, assuming there was an illegal detention.

It concluded that the discovery of the arrest warrant would be considered an intervening circumstance that removed the taint of the prior illegal stop.

The Arizona Supreme Court vacated the Arizona Appeals Court ruling related to illegal detentions.  But it affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress.

It explained that the appellate court was wrong about the stop being illegal, and had overemphasized how important the warrant was as an intervening circumstance that attenuated the connection between the illegal detention and the evidence discovered.

The Arizona Supreme Court reasoned that if a warrant could automatically remove the adverse impacts to prosecution due to evidence acquired by an unlawful stop or search, law enforcement could create a corrupt type of police investigation. In that, police could make illegal stops on a routine basis, and there would be a justification for their earlier illegal actions, if they found an arrest warrant.

In the US Supreme Court case we evaluated above, the High Court majority disagreed with this view, reasoning that the Arizona Supreme Court disavowed in considering Hummons.

Arrest Warrants Q. & A.   

In the U.S. Supreme Court case analysis above, the suspect’s active warrant was the most critical factor that led to his arrest.

Had the warrant been resolved before the stop, the court would likely have agreed to suppress the drug evidence found in his possession, after the unlawful stop. This is one very important reason to resolve your arrest warrant as quickly as possible.

Below are answers to some frequently asked questions related to arrest warrants:

Q. How can I find out if there is a warrant out for my arrest?

A.  In addition to law enforcement agency websites there are a number of free and paid services online that provide this information. However, they are not always accurate or up to date. The only sure way to confirm it is to contact the issuing law enforcement agency who you suspect issued the warrant.   If you are uncertain however, it is best to consult a criminal defense attorney who can contact the agency to confirm if a warrant exists, on your behalf.


Q. How do I resolve a warrant for my arrest?

A.  There are three ways to resolve a warrant: . 1) You can voluntarily appear in court in front of the judge on a walk-in basis.  Depending on the jurisdiction, the court may set aside a certain time or day for these.  2) If the warrant is for an unpaid bond, and you pay it, this may resolve the warrant, and a new court date rescheduled.  3) Hire a criminal lawyer who defends those with charges in the jurisdiction where the warrant was issued.  They will file a motion to resolve the warrant on your behalf and arrange for a new court date to be scheduled.   If you wish to self-surrender, you should in the least consult a criminal defense attorney to discuss the matter.


Q.  What happens if I don’t resolve my warrant?

A.   If you don’t resolve your warrant, you can be arrested anytime. Police can go to your home, place of business, or other location where you may be to make the arrest.  If you are stopped for a routine traffic violation, or on suspicion of another crime, police will routinely conduct a search and find the outstanding warrant.   You will then be arrested.  Police in Arizona occasionally conduct stings aimed at locating fugitives or those who have not resolve their outstanding arrest warrants.


Q.  How long do arrest warrants stay in effect?   

A.  Arrest warrants in Arizona stay in effect indefinitely, until it is resolved or the individual is arrested.


Q.  Can I be arrested in another state if I move out of state, if the warrant was issued in Arizona?

A.  You can still be arrested in another state, if the warrant was issued in Arizona. This can happen if you are stopped by police in one state, and they find out you have an existing arrest warrant.  When a police officer pulls over a suspect, even for a routine traffic violation, they will search their databases to see if the person has an outstanding warrant.  Further, depending on the nature of the charges, and how serious they are, the police may decide to utilize resources and go out of their way to look for a person outside of Arizona.


Q. What types of arrest warrants can be issued?

A. There are two types of arrests warrants. One is a bench warrant which results from failure to appear on a scheduled court date. The second is an arrest warrant issued when the police determine they have “probable cause” that a person committed or was involved in committing a crime.

Criminal Defense Attorney for Outstanding Warrants in Mesa AZ

Retaining a criminal defense attorney to resolve your warrant for help you avoid an untimely arrest.

As long as the warrant is outstanding, you risk immediate arrest anywhere, including home, work, or following a routine police stop.

The safest way to find out if you have a warrant or to get it quashed is to retain a criminal defense attorney to resolve it on your behalf.

James Novak is a former prosecutor in Maricopa County.  He has provides a strong defense for person’s charged with a crime.

If retained, he can resolve the warrant, and provide a full defense for your criminal charges.   James Novak, will protect your rights, and freedom and future.

Attorney, James Novak, provides a free initial consultation to people facing active criminal charges in Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, and Scottsdale, Arizona.

If you are charged with a DUI or crime,  call or contact or call the Law Office of James Novak at (480) 413-1499 to discuss your legal matter.  You can speak directly with James Novak and obtain your free and confidential initial consultation

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