U.S. v Leon

U.S. v Leon

Vote: 6 (Blackmun, Burger, O’Connor, Powell, Rehnquist, White) – 3 (Brennan, Marshall, Stevens)

In Burbank, California in 1981, the police received an anonymous tip of unknown reliability stating that Armando Sanchez and Patsy Stewart of the local area were suspected drug dealers.  The tip in question contained information such as that Sanchez and Stewart were keeping drugs in their house, as well as in another location in the city.  The police began running surveillance of their residence and while doing so,  spotted a car that belonged to a third individual, Ricardo Del Castillo, who had a history of drug possession.  Through further examination of Del Castillo’s probation records, the police were able to track down a known drug dealer, Alberto Leon.

Using this information along with that provided by a second information, an officer prepared an affidavit for obtaining a search warrant.  A judge issued this search warrant, which allowed the Burbank police to search multiple residences, seize a large amount of drugs, and arrest Leon, Sanchez, and Del Castillo.

The case went to trial, where the defense argued the search warrant was invalid due to the lack of established credibility of the initial informant, due to the tip being based off observed information from several months prior, and thus denying probable cause for issuing the warrant.   The government presented the claim that because the police acted believing they had a legitimate warrant, they had acted in “good faith.”

The vote breakdown for the case was 6-3, with Justice White delivering the Opinion of the Court and Justices Brennan and Marshall dissenting.   I agree with the majority Opinion as presented by Justice White, which brings forth several reasons why the evidence should be allowed in the prosecution’s case-in-chief argument.  One point that J. White brings out that I particularly agree with is that the primary sentiment behind the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule is not to punish judges and magistrates for their errors.  Rather, it is to deter police misconduct, of which there was none in this case.  The Burbank police appropriately followed the procedure for obtaining a legal warrant -collecting appropriate information, drawing up an affidavit, etc.  Additionally, the police acted under their “good faith” belief that they had a warrant to perform the search and seizure, as well as the accompanying arrests.  The police followed the conduct laid out for them; it was the judge who issued the warrant who was at fault.  As such, the actions performed by the police do not violate the exclusionary rule.

Having established that it is the judge in question who is at fault, J. White then argues that there is no evidence that judges tend to ignore the Fourth Amendment when issuing warrants.  Rather, they generally follow precedent in determining if an affidavit in question is enough to establish probable cause.  This case thus appears to be the exception rather than the rule.

As his final point, J. White presents the argument that there is no guarantee that suppressing this evidence will have the intended deterrence effect on magistrates.  For with the way that the legal system is designed, there is no way to ensure that those who are issuing the warrants will be affected by the result.  Because they generally have no invested interest in the outcome of these cases, this would not have the intended effect.

In his dissent, Justice Brennan, with Justice Marshall argue that the “good faith” argument presented by J. White would not be sufficient to ensure officers do more than the bare minimum to secure a search warrant.  Thus, failure to suppress this evidence will allow officers to underperform in their positions and still be able to receive warrants.  However, I do not agree that this is the message that will be sent at all.  For in this case, it was not the officers who erred, it was the magistrate who issued the warrant in the first place.  Had the magistrate not issued the warrant, it would have been clear that s/he did not believe that the evidence gathered was enough to grant one.  But because s/he did in fact issue the warrant, it is clear both the officer and the magistrate believed that the tip was enough to secure a warrant.  As such, I uphold my agreement with the Opinion as presented by J. White.