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January 15, 2009

Justices Say Evidence Is Valid Despite Police Error

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the conviction of an Alabama man on drug and weapons charges, emphasizing that the exclusionary rule, which generally bars prosecutors from using evidence obtained by the police through improper searches, is far from absolute.

In a 5-to-4 opinion, the court upheld the federal conviction of Bennie Dean Herring, who from the court records appears to have been very unlucky as well as felonious in his conduct. In upholding the conviction, the court’s majority came to a conclusion that will most likely please those who complain about criminals going free on “technicalities” and alarm those who fear that the high court is looking for ways to narrow the reach of the exclusionary rule.

Mr. Herring had gone to the Coffee County, Ala., sheriff’s department on July 7, 2004, to retrieve something from his truck, which had been impounded. “Herring was no stranger to law enforcement,” as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. observed dryly in his opinion for the court.

And he was no stranger to Mark Anderson, an investigator for the sheriff’s department, who asked a Coffee County clerk if there were any outstanding warrants for Mr. Herring.

No, Mr. Anderson was told. So he asked the clerk to check with her counterpart in neighboring Dale County, who turned up a warrant against Mr. Herring for failing to appear in court on a felony charge.

Mr. Anderson and a deputy following Mr. Herring as he left the impound lot pulled him over and arrested him. A search turned up methamphetamine in his pocket and a pistol, which Mr. Herring could not legally possess because of an earlier felony conviction, in his truck.

Within minutes, however, the Dale County clerk discovered that the warrant against Mr. Herring had been withdrawn five months earlier and had been left in the computer system by mistake. The clerk immediately called Mr. Anderson, but Mr. Herring had already been taken into custody.

Was Mr. Herring entitled to go free because the officers lacked probable cause and there was no dispute that both the arrest and subsequent search were unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment? No, the Supreme Court ruled.

“When police mistakes leading to an unlawful search are the result of isolated negligence attenuated from the search, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, the exclusionary rule does not apply,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

“We do not suggest that all recordkeeping errors by the police are immune from the exclusionary rule,” the majority noted. But the justices said the official errors in the Herring case do not compare with the kind of egregious and deliberate police misconduct that gave rise to the exclusionary rule in the first place.

Deciding when to throw out evidence under the exclusionary rule is a balancing act, the majority said. Is the official misconduct serious enough that the evidence should be disallowed to deter future misconduct, even if criminals sometimes go free?

Not in Mr. Herring’s case, the majority ruled, upholding findings by a federal district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer dissented. “In my view, the court’s opinion underestimates the need for a forceful exclusionary rule and the gravity of recordkeeping errors in the law enforcement,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

But in the majority opinion, the chief justice wrote that the exclusionary rule “is not an individual right and applies only where its deterrent effect outweighs the substantial cost of letting guilty and possibly dangerous defendants go free.”

At another point, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “the very phrase ‘probable cause’ confirms that the Fourth Amendment does not demand all possible precision.”

The dissenters were unpersuaded, however. “Negligent recordkeeping errors by law enforcement threaten individual liberty, are susceptible to deterrence by the exclusionary rule, and cannot be remedied effectively through other means,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.


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 Argued: October 7, 2008 -- Decided: January 14, 2009
Opinion author: Roberts

  Officers in Coffee County arrested petitioner Herring based
on a warrant listed in neighboring Dale County's database.
A search incident to that arrest yielded drugs and a gun.
It was then revealed that the warrant had been recalled
months earlier, though this information had never been
entered into the database. Herring was indicted on federal
gun and drug possession charges and moved to suppress the
evidence on the ground that his initial arrest had been
illegal. Assuming that there was a Fourth Amendment violation,
the District Court concluded that the exclusionary rule
did not apply and denied the motion to suppress. The Eleventh
Circuit affirmed, finding that the arresting officers were
innocent of any wrongdoing, and that Dale County's failure
to update the records was merely negligent. The court therefore
concluded that the benefit of suppression would be marginal
or nonexistent and that the evidence was admissible under
the good-faith rule of United States v. Leon, 468 U. S.
897 .

  Held: When police mistakes leading to an unlawful search
are the result of isolated negligence attenuated from the
search, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard
of constitutional requirements, the exclusionary rule does
not apply. Pp. 4-13.

  (a) The fact that a search or arrest was unreasonable does
not necessarily mean that the exclusionary rule applies.
Illinois v. Gates, 462 U. S. 213 . The rule is not an individual
right and applies only where its deterrent effect outweighs
the substantial cost of letting guilty and possibly dangerous
defendants go free. Leon, 468 U. S., at 908-909. For example,
it does not apply if police acted "in objectively reasonable
reliance" on an invalid warrant. Id., at 922. In applying
Leon's good-faith rule to police who reasonably relied
on mistaken information in a court's database that an arrest
warrant was outstanding, Arizona v. Evans, 514 U. S. 1
, the Court left unresolved the issue confronted here:
whether evidence should be suppressed if the police committed
the error, id., at 16, n. 5. Pp. 4-7.

  (b) The extent to which the exclusionary rule is justified
by its deterrent effect varies with the degree of law enforcement
culpability. See, e.g., Leon, supra, at 911. Indeed, the
abuses that gave rise to the rule featured intentional
conduct that was patently unconstitutional. See, e.g.,
Weeks v. United States, 232 U. S 383. An error arising
from nonrecurring and attenuated negligence is far removed
from the core concerns that led to the rule's adoption.
Pp. 7-9.

  (c) To trigger the exclusionary rule, police conduct must
be sufficiently deliberate that exclusion can meaningfully
deter it, and sufficiently culpable that such deterrence
is worth the price paid by the justice system. The pertinent
analysis is objective, not an inquiry into the arresting
officers' subjective awareness. See, e.g., Leon, supra,
at 922, n. 23. Pp. 9-11.

  (d) The conduct here was not so objectively culpable as
to require exclusion. The marginal benefits that might
follow from suppressing evidence obtained in these circumstances
cannot justify the substantial costs of exclusion. Leon,
supra, at 922. Pp. 11-13.

  492 F. 3d 1212, affirmed.

  Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in
which Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined.
Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens,
Souter, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting
opinion, in which Souter, J., joined.