United States Supreme Court Affirms Eleventh Circuit Federal Criminal Case

In a case arising out of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Georgia, the Supreme Court of the United States limited the exclusionary rule by holding that where an unlawful search results from isolated police negligence, the evidence obtained from that unlawful search may still be used against a criminal defendant.

The exclusionary rule generally protects citizens against violations of their rights under the search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment provides people the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” It doesn’t expressly provide for any remedies when that right is violated, but the Courts established the exclusionary rule, which forbids the use of improperly obtained evidence at trial. The rule is useful for it’s deterrent effect: the police are less likely to violate citizens’ rights if they won’t be able to use evidence found as a result of their violation.

In this case, Herring v. United States, police in Alabama arrested and searched Bennie Dean Herring under the mistaken belief that a warrant for his arrest existed. During that search, they found methamphetamine and a pistol, which he was not allowed to possess because he was a convicted felon. Soon after the search, the police discovered that the warrant had been recalled 5 months earlier, but their computers had not been updated.

Because there was no warrant or probable cause for the search, it was a violation of Herring’s Fourth Amendment rights. Herring argued that the exclusionary rule required suppression of the drugs and pistol found during the search. The judges in the Middle District of Alabama, however, denied his motion to suppress because in this case, where the police acted under a good faith belief that a warrant was outstanding, there was “no reason to believe that application of the exclusionary rules here would deter the occurrence of any future mistakes.” Herring appealed and the Eleventh Circuit agreed, noting that the police error was negligent, rather than deliberate, and the benefit of excluding the evidence “would be marginal or nonexistent.”

The United States Supreme Court took this case because other courts have excluded evidence in similar cases. They resolved the conflict in favor of the Eleventh Circuit’s judgment, stating that “when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, any marginal deterrence does not ‘pay its way.'” The Court divided along ideological lines, with Chief Justice Roberts writing the opinion and joined by Justices Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer.

The Court’s opinion can be found here.