Should the exclusionary rule be applied to evidence seized by the police conducting a search in full compliance with binding precedent which is later overruled?
Recently, in Davis v. United States, the United States Supreme Court said, “No!” According to the Court, “When the police conduct a search in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent, the exclusionary rule does not apply.”
“The Fourth Amendment protects the right to be free from ‘unreasonable searches and seizures,’ but it is silent about how this right is to be enforced. To supplement the bare text, this Court created the exclusionary rule, a deterrent sanction that bars the prosecution from introducing evidence obtained by way of a Fourth Amendment violation. The question here is whether to apply this sanction when the police conduct a search in compliance with binding precedent that is later overruled.”
The Case: The question in this case arises due to a change in the law related to searches of automobiles incident to arrests of recent occupants. In Arizona v. Gant, 129 S.Ct. 1710 (2009), the Court replaced the bright-line rule of New York v. Belton, 101 S.Ct. 2860 (1981) and held that the police “may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.”
The search here in Davis took place two full years before the holding in Gant was announced. “On an April evening in 2007, police officers in Greenville, Alabama, conducted a routine traffic stop that eventually resulted in the arrests of driver Stella Owens (for driving while intoxicated) and passenger Willie Davis (for giving a false name to police). The police handcuffed both Owens and Davis, and they placed the arrestees in the back of separate patrol cars. The police then searched the passenger compartment of Owens’s vehicle and found a revolver inside Davis’s jacket pocket.” Davis was later indicted on one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
In Davis’s appeal from an unsuccessful motion to suppress, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit applied Gant’s new rule and held that the vehicle search incident to Davis’s arrest violated the Fourth Amendment. Nonetheless, the Eleventh Circuit ultimately concluded that suppression of evidence was not warranted “because ‘penalizing the [arresting] officer’ for following binding appellate precedent would do nothing to ‘deter Fourth Amendment violations.’ ” It therefore declined to apply the exclusionary rule. The United States Supreme Court agreed and affirmed Davis’s conviction.
The Law: As the Court has held on numerous occasions, the sanction of “[e]xclusion is ‘not a personal constitutional right,’ nor is it designed to ‘redress the injury’ occasioned by an unconstitutional search. * * * The rule’s sole purpose is to deter future Fourth Amendment violations.” In this regard, the Court instructed:
Exclusion exacts a heavy toll on both the judicial system and society at large. * * * It almost always requires courts to ignore reliable, trustworthy evidence bearing on guilt or innocence. And its bottom-line effect, in many cases, is to suppress the truth and set the criminal loose in the community without punishment. * * * Our cases hold that society must swallow this bitter pill when necessary, but only as a “last resort.” * * * For exclusion to be appropriate, the deterrence benefits of suppression must outweigh its heavy costs.
“When the police exhibit ‘deliberate,’ ‘reckless,’ or ‘grossly negligent’ disregard for Fourth Amendment rights, the deterrent value of exclusion is strong and tends to outweigh the resulting costs.” But, when the police “act with an objectively ‘reasonable good faith belief ‘ that their conduct is lawful, * * *, or when their conduct involves only simple, ‘isolated’ negligence, * * * the ‘deterrence rationale loses much of its force,’ and exclusion cannot ‘pay its way.’ ”
The question in this case is whether to apply the exclusionary rule when the police conduct a search in objectively reasonable reliance on binding judicial precedent. At the time of the search at issue here, the Court had not yet decided Arizona v. Gant, and the Eleventh Circuit had interpreted the decision in New York v. Belton to establish a bright-line rule authorizing the search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment incident to a recent occupant’s arrest. The search incident to Davis’s arrest in this case “followed the Eleventh Circuit’s precedent to the letter. Although the search turned out to be unconstitutional under Gant, all agree that the officers’ conduct was in strict compliance with then-binding Circuit law and was not culpable in any way.”
“The officers who conducted the search did not violate Davis’s Fourth Amendment rights deliberately, recklessly, or with gross negligence. * * * The police acted in strict compliance with binding precedent, and their behavior was not wrongful.” Thus, the exclusionary rule has “no application in this case.”
“About all that exclusion would deter in this case is conscientious police work. Responsible law enforcement officers will take care to learn ‘what is required of them’ under Fourth Amendment precedent and will conform their conduct to these rules. * * *But, by the same token, when binding appellate precedent specifically authorizes a particular police practice, well trained officers will and should use that tool to fulfill their crime detection and public safety responsibilities. An officer who conducts a search in reliance on binding appellate precedent does no more than ‘ac[t] as a reasonable officer would and should act’ under the circumstances. * * * [Indeed], the harsh sanction of exclusion ‘should not be applied to deter objectively reasonable law enforcement activity.’ * * * Evidence obtained during a search conducted in reasonable reliance on binding precedent is not subject to the exclusionary rule.”
In this case, the police reasonably relied on binding court precedent. “That sort of blameless police conduct comes within the good faith exception and is not properly subject to the exclusionary rule.” Concluded the Court:
It is one thing for the criminal “to go free because the constable has blundered.” * * * It is quite another to set the criminal free because the constable has scrupulously adhered to governing law. Excluding evidence in such cases deters no police misconduct and imposes substantial social costs.
The Court held, therefore, that “when the police conduct a search in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent, the exclusionary rule does not apply.”
About the Author: Larry E. Holtz is the C.E.O. and Executive Director of Police Training for Holtz Learning Centers, Ltd. He has served as a Detective Sergeant with the Atlantic City, New Jersey, Police Department; a Deputy Attorney General for the state of New Jersey; and an Assistant County Prosecutor. Mr. Holtz is a certified police trainer and teaches on a regular basis in police training academies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
He is a member of the bar in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, and is admitted to practice before the federal bar in the District of New Jersey and the Third Circuit.
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