On April 24, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Chew[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to the attenuation doctrine, which is a legal doctrine that, under certain circumstances, can prevent suppression of evidence.

In Chew, officers responded to a nuisance complaint.  The officers located Chew and handcuffed him for the suspected nuisance violation.  After he was detained and handcuffed, the officers conducted a warrant check and learned that Chew was wanted for a probation violation warrant.  He was taken to the police station and his backpack was subjected to an inventory search; officers located methamphetamine in the backpack.  He was subsequently charged under federal law.  He filed a motion to suppress the evidence and argued that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to detain him, lacked probable cause to seize his person and the attenuation doctrine did not remedy the illegal seizure.  The district court denied the motion.  Chew appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Ninth Circuit first examined the law related to the attenuation doctrine.  Specifically, the court stated

The typical remedy for Fourth Amendment violations by law enforcement officers is suppression or exclusion of evidence at trial. Utah vStrieff, —U.S.—-, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2061 (2016). One exception to the exclusionary rule is the attenuation doctrine. That exception makes evidence admissible “when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance, so that ‘the interest protected by the constitutional guarantee that has been violated would not be served by the suppression of the evidence obtained.'” Id. (quoting Hudson vMichigan, 547 U.S. 586, 593 (2006)). When determining whether the attenuation doctrine is applicable courts look to three factors: (1) “the ‘temporal proximity’ between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of evidence to determine how closely the discovery of evidence followed the unconstitutional [stop and detention].”; (2) “the presence of intervening circumstances”; and (3) “the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct,” which is of particular significanceId. at 2061-62 (internal citations omitted).[ii]

In other words, even if the officers violated the Fourth Amendment such that the exclusionary rule would be appropriate for suppression of the evidence obtained, the attenuation doctrine can prevent the suppression of the evidence.  The three factors that the court will consider for the attenuation doctrine to apply are as follows:

(1) The closeness in time between the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence;

(2) The presence of intervening circumstances; and

(3) The purpose and flagrancy of the unconstitutional conduct.

The court of appeals also examined the facts of Utah v. Strieff[iii], a Supreme Court case that was very similar to Chew’s case.  The court stated

In Strieff, the Supreme Court held that the discovery of an arrest warrant broke the causal chain between an unlawful investigatory detention, and the arrest of a suspect. The court found “the warrant was valid, it predated the officer’s investigation, and it was entirely unconnected with the stop. And once the officer discovered the warrant, he had an obligation to arrest the defendant.” Id. at 2062.

The Ninth Circuit then noted the similarities between Strieff and Chew.  Chew was stopped and detained for a nuisance violation.  After the stop, it was learned that he had an outstanding warrant that was valid and was in existence prior to his stop for the nuisance violation.  The court stated that the officer’s similarly had an obligation to arrest Chew and conduct an inventory search of his backpack.  While the first factor weighs against the application of the attenuation doctrine as the stop and discovery of the evidence were relatively close in time,  the second factor weighed in favor of the attenuation doctrine in that the warrant existed prior to the stop and the warrant served as an intervening circumstance, assuming, without deciding, that the original stop was unlawful.

Lastly, the court of appeals considered the third factor, particularly the purpose and flagrancy of the alleged unconstitutional conduct.  In Chew’s case, the district court found that the officers acted with “good faith” belief that they were correctly enforcing the nuisance ordinance.  Additionally, the officer’s were responding to complaints from the community regarding the nuisance violation, rather than acting on their own accord.  As such, the court of appeals held that the Ninth Circuit did not err in deciding that this factor weighed in favor of the attenuation doctrine.

Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress because the attenuation doctrine applied in this case.



[i] No. 19-10110 (9th Cir. Decided April 24, 2020 Unpublished)

[ii] Id. at 2-3 (emphasis added)

[iii] 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016)

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