Supreme Court Expands (Again) Good Faith Exception to the Exclusionary Rule

June 16, 2011 by Carl Lietz

Earlier today, in a federal criminal case that originated in Montgomery, Alabama, the Supreme Court issued an opinion rejecting the application of the exclusionary rule, even though the police conduct at issue was ultimately deemed to violate the Fourth Amendment. The case at issue was Davis v. United States.

In Davis, the defendant and his passenger were arrested for DUI and providing a false name to police officers. After both individuals were arrested, they were placed in separate patrol cars. The police then searched Davis's vehicle and the search uncovered a firearm. Sometime later, Davis was indicted in federal court in the Middle District of Alabama for possession of a firearm in violation of federal law.

At the time of the search, the search of Davis's car was permissible under then-existing Supreme Court precedent. While Davis's case was pending on direct appeal, however, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Arizona v. Gant. In Gant, the Supreme Court ruled adopted a new, two-part rule under which an automobile search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest is constitutional only (1) if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle during the search, or (2) if the police have reason to believe that the vehicle contains evidence relevant to the crime of arrest. Therefore, under Gant, the search in Davis was unconstitutional, and it seemed as though Davis's conviction would be overturned.

Not so fast, however, because in recent years, the Supreme Court has been more and more willing to avoid applying the exclusionary rule by expanding the circumstances under which police officers may rely on the doctrine of "good faith." And that is exactly what happened in Davis.

According to the majority opinion in Davis, "the officers who conducted the search did not violate Davis’s Fourth Amendment rights deliberately, recklessly, or with gross negligence." The majority therefore concluded "when the police conduct a search in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent, the exclusionary rule does not apply."

Justices Breyer and Ginsburg dissented in Davis. In their view, the majority created a new “good faith” exception which prevents application of the normal remedy for a Fourth Amendment violation, namely, suppression of the illegally seized evidence." Even more importantly, as do we, the dissenting Justices expressed genuine "fear that the Court’s opinion will undermine the exclusionary rule."

The opinion is worth a read and may be found here.