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United States: California Holds that Evidence Obtained During an Illegal Traffic Stop Need Not Be Suppressed When an Outstanding Arrest Warrant Exists

(Dec. 15, 2008) On November 24, 2008, the California Supreme Court held that discovery of an outstanding arrest warrant during an illegal traffic stop could overcome illegal search and seizure concerns over evidence discovered during the stop.

The case involved a 2001 traffic stop by a California sheriff's deputy who lacked legally sufficient cause for the stop. During the stop, the deputy learned there was an outstanding warrant for the arrest of Bruce Brendlin, who was a passenger in the car. Brendlin was arrested, and a subsequent search of the car revealed drugs and materials for manufacturing methamphetamine.

The trial court sentenced Brendlin to four years in prison. California's intermediate appellate court overturned his conviction, holding that the traffic stop was an unlawful seizure under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment because the deputy did not have sufficient cause to stop the car Brendlin was riding in, and therefore the evidence resulting from the stop should have been suppressed. The California Supreme Court reversed that decision, holding a traffic stop was not a Fourth Amendment seizure of a passenger in the car. This decision was subsequently overturned by the United States Supreme Court, which held that a traffic stop was a Fourth Amendment seizure of passengers as well as the driver. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the California Supreme Court for further proceedings.

Taking up the case again, the California Supreme Court ruled that evidence seized during an illegal search need not be suppressed if a significant event intervened between the moment of the illegal seizure and the discovery of criminal evidence, “attenuating” the link between the former and the latter. The Court ruled that an arrest under a valid warrant constituted such an intervening, attenuating event. While such an event could still constitute a Fourth Amendment violation if some “flagrant” or “police” conduct were involved, in this case the Court found that the deputy had merely made a mistake about the traffic laws. (People v. Brendlin, No. S123133A (Cal. Nov. 24, 2008), available at