Yes Virginia, there is a Barney Fife exception to the exclusionary rule.
In Herring v. United States, 07-513, the Supreme Court decided today, 5-4, holding that a constitutional violation that is only negligent is not subject to the exclusionary rule. The implications of this go beyond the recordkeeping issue presented. See The Surpassing Significance of Herring on SCOTUSBlog.
From the Court's syllabus:
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, 223. 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, 14–15, 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.
Comment: Whether the Court intends it or not, in effect, it is promising in the future to reward sloppy police work. Ironically, that’s one of the kinds of conduct the exclusionary rule was created to correct. It’s the "Barney Fife" exception to the Fourth Amendment. This case is the subject of my NACDL President's Column from the Nov.-Dec. issue: The Barney Fife Exception to the Exclusionary Rule.
(By the way, SCOTUS cases prior to 2007 have been removed from the sidebar.)
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