United States v. Leon

Any illegally seized evidence is not allowed to be used in a trial to convict someone. This is known as the exclusionary rule and it also applies to warrants obtained under false pretenses. In 1981, police received an anonymous tip that several people were dealing drugs including Alberto Leon. They began surveilling the suspected drug dealers and based on this surveillance they petitioned a judge for a warrant, which was granted based on an officer’s affidavit. The search turned up illegal drugs, and the suspects were indicted. However, they filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the warrant. A district court agreed with the defendants saying that the affidavit provided by the officer was insufficient to constitute probable cause, but acknowledged that the officer had acted in good faith. The prosecutors argued that the exclusionary rule shouldn’t apply to situations where law enforcement acted in good faith but this argument was struck down. A court of appeals also voted against this exception.

The chief legal question of the case was whether the exclusionary rule applies to warrants carried out in good faith that are later deemed to be based on unsubstantial evidence.

Justice White delivered the opinion of the court, which voted that the exclusionary rule did not apply in this situation. His first point was that the exclusionary rule is put in place in the fourth amendment as a deterrent not as a means of correcting past mistakes. It exists to stop police from illegally searching houses or people, finding evidence and then using that evidence, with full knowledge that what they are doing is illegal. Since the officer in this case acted in good faith, that is to say he gathered evidence, and obtained a legal warrant from a judge that was only later overturned, the evidence should still stand. White further argued that allowing criminals to receive reduced sentences or go free because a search warrant was faulty but turned up damning evidence would result in a lack of respect for the law.

Justice Brennan delivered the dissent, joined by justice Marshall. Brennan argued that the exclusionary rule did not just apply to knowingly illegally obtained evidence, but any illegally obtained evidence. The Fourth Amendment is designed to restrain the power of the government and the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule would expand that power further. He argued that it would encourage law enforcement to do the bare minimum to obtain warrants since as long as they got the warrant there would be no incentive to be thorough.

I agree with the dissent on this case. I believe that the majority twisted the language of the exclusionary rule to allow for this good faith provision. The exclusionary rule was put in place to keep the government from using illegally obtained evidence in a trial. If a warrant is based on unsubstantiated information and is deemed faulty, then the evidence turned up through that warrant is not evidence that has been obtained legally. Arguing that the exclusionary rule is merely a deterrent against blatant wrongdoing on the part of the government is unfair. I also agree with Brennan that this sets a bad precedent, judges and police can play more fast and loose with warrants because they don’t have to worry about the warrant getting thrown out based on a lack of evidence.

I am surprised that the court ruled 6-3 in favor of the US in this situation and I wonder if it would have been that wide a margin today or if it could have been a representation of the times, the court was pretty conservative in 1984.