Herring v. United States (2009)

In July of 2004, Herring was detained by two Officers from the Sheriff’s Department of Coffee County, Alabama based upon an outstanding warrant for his arrest in another county, for failing to appear in court on a felony charge. When the police carried out a search incident to the arrest they discovered methamphetamine in his pocket and a pistol in his truck. Herring was subsequently arrested and charged with violations on federal weapon and drug laws, but this is where it gets interesting. While this arrest was taking place, the warrant clerk from the neighboring county contacted the police department to inform them that there had been a mistake and the warrant for Herring’s arrest had been cancelled five months earlier, but their computer system had not been properly updated. Herring’s lawyers filed to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the initial search had been conducted with a faulty arrest warrant and, thus, was illegally obtained. The district court denied this motion and Herring was sentenced to 27 months in prison. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision on the grounds that the arresting officers had acted in “good-faith” and had every reason to believe they had a warrant to make the arrest.

The legal question in this case is fairly complex, but the Supreme Court attempted to answer the question, Does the introduction of evidence obtained in a search based on an arrest warrant that should have been recalled, but was thought to be in effect due to an isolated instance of negligence at the time of the search violate the search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment?

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals in a 5-4 decision. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion. The majority accepts the appellant’s assertion that there was a Fourth Amendment violation, but that it was not reckless or deliberate and therefore the decision of the case is focused on whether or not the exclusionary rule is applicable. Chief Justice Roberts asserts the following about the application of the exclusionary rule:

  1. The fact that a search or arrest was deemed unreasonable does not guarantee that the exclusionary rule applies because it is not an individual right, it can only be granted where it applies, and the benefits of deterrence must outweigh the costs of letting a guilty/dangerous person back onto the streets
  2. The exclusionary rule should only be applied to suppress evidence if it is clear that the police officer was aware, or thought to have sufficient information that it was a warrantless search. The purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter future incidents of police misconduct in similar situations where the benefit would have greater value to the criminal justice system than the potential cost of letting a criminal go free.
  3. The exclusionary rule should be applied in cases where the exclusion will deter deliberate and negligent action whether it is by police officers or more systematic in a way that will outweigh the cost to the function of the criminal justice system.

Herring’s case focused on the premise that the negligence of the police is grounds for the use of the exclusionary rule and the suppression of evidence, but the Majority holds that the exclusionary rule is not applicable when the police act in ‘good-faith’ and have a reasonable belief that they are operating under a valid warrant. In this case it was decided that there would be no significant benefit of deterrence because this mistake was neither systematic nor deliberate, as it was a clerical error.

I find myself agreeing with the opinion of the majority, but there are definitely important arguments and points brought up in the dissenting opinions by Justice Ginsberg and Justice Breyer, respectively. Justice Ginsberg argues against the erosion of the exclusionary rule on the grounds that the rule is critical to upholding the Fourth Amendment and incentivizing police officers to uphold the rights of the accused in regards to search and seizure. He states that negligent errors by police officers are a threat to individual rights, and therefore should be subject to the exclusionary rule. Justice Breyer argues that the application of the exclusionary rule should be applied on clear guidelines instead of a case-by-case basis. Justice Breyer argues that the court should start moving away from the focus on police culpability and instead should start considering errors made by police and errors made by record/report keepers differently.

I think Justice Breyer brings up an interesting point with his discussion into computerized systems and electronic record keeping, do you think the occurrence of warrantless searches and arrests will increase alongside the use of this technology based upon errors in record keeping?

 

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