The Supreme Court pulled back on the so-called "exclusionary rule" yesterday and ruled that evidence from an illegal search can be used if a police officer made an innocent mistake.
The 5-4 opinion signals the court is ready to rethink this key rule in that criminal law and restrict its reach. It will also give prosecutors and judges nationwide more leeway to make use of evidence that might have been seen as questionable before.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the guilty should not "go free" just because a computer error or a misunderstanding between police officers led to a wrongful arrest or search.
He said good evidence, even if obtained in a bad search, can be used against a suspect unless the police deliberately or recklessly violated his rights.
The exclusionary rule was applied to state and local police in 1961, and its aim was to deter officers from conducting unconstitutional searches of homes, cars and pedestrians. Usually, it means that illegally seized evidence must be excluded and thrown out.
But in yesterday's opinion, Roberts said "the benefits must outweigh the costs." And there is nothing to be gained, he said, by throwing out evidence when officers make honest mistakes.
The ruling upheld the drug and gun charges against an Alabama man who was stopped by an officer who had been told there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. It turns out that was a mistake.
The officer, Mark Anderson, had called and been told by a clerk in a neighboring county that Bennie Dean Herring had failed to appear on a felony charge. But minutes after Anderson stopped Herring and found methamphetamine and a pistol in his car, the clerk called back to say the arrest warrant had been withdrawn. This fact had not been entered into the department's computer.
At issue for the court was whether the exclusionary rule required the evidence to be thrown out. Roberts said the mistake here was a "negligent bookkeeping error." It did not reflect an officer's deliberate decision to violate the rights of the motorist.
The dissenters said the exclusionary rule should be strictly enforced. "The most serious impact of the court's holding will be on innocent persons wrongfully arrested based on erroneous information carefully maintained in a computer database," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Defense lawyers agreed. "Whether it intends it or not, in effect, the court 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," John Wesley Hall, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in a statement.