Herring v. United States

In a landmark 2009 decision, the Supreme Court in Herring v. United States extended the good-faith exception to limit application of the exclusionary rule.

Facts: Petitioner Bennie Herring was arrested based on an outstanding arrest warrant from a neighboring county, and during the search the police found methamphetamine and a loaded gun. However, during the process of the search, it was discovered that the warrant had actually been recalled five months earlier and someone had accidentally failed to remove it from the computer system. By the time the police received this information, the incriminating evidence had already been discovered. Herring’s lawyers moved to suppress the evidence, asserting that it was obtained illegally, but the county held that the evidence was admissible based on the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule.

Legal question: In this case, the Supreme Court considered the question of whether the introduction of evidence obtained through a police search based on a recalled arrest warrant (that was negligently allowed to remain active) is a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure clause.

Holding: The Supreme Court voted 5-4 that it was not a violation, and the majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

Reasoning: Because the arrest warrant was invalid, neither party contested the fact that a Fourth Amendment violation had occurred – rather, the disagreement in this case centers on whether or not the evidence should be suppressed. Roberts writes that although the failure to update the computer database to reflect the recall of the arrest warrant was a negligent mistake, it was not reckless or deliberate. Resultantly, this error by itself is not enough to require “the extreme sanction of exclusion.” The Supreme Court created a new test: “to trigger the exclusionary rule” police conduct must be “sufficiently deliberate” and the police must be “sufficiently culpable.” The error was not a deliberate disregard of constitutional requirements, but instead an error of isolated negligence. Because the police did not know the arrest warrant was invalid, they were not culpable.

This decision follows the precedent of expanding the good-faith exception. In 1970 the Court first created the “good-faith” exception to the exclusionary rule in United States v. Leon, holding that the social costs caused by the exclusionary rule – “particularly when law enforcement officers have acted in objective good faith or their transgressions have been minor” – outweighed the benefits to the criminal justice system of the exclusionary rule. In the 2006 case Hudson v. Michigan the Supreme Court further expanded the good-faith exception to cases involving the “knock and announce” rule.

Dissent: Justice Ginsburg wrote a dissent and was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer. “Electronic databases form the nervous system of contemporary criminal justice operations and… as a result, law enforcement has an increasing supply of information within its easy electronic reach,” Ginsburg notes. These databases are insufficiently monitored and frequently out of date, causing concerns for individual liberty. Ginsburg worries that this additional exception to the exclusionary rule eliminates incentive to update the databases and encourages police corruption. Breyer also wrote a separate dissent which was joined by Souter. His main concern was about separating the errors made by record keepers and the errors made by police officers, and the importance of differentiating between the two when determining the degree of police culpability.

Legal implications: This decision significantly broadens the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. However, even with the deliberate and culpable test, determining whether the exception applies is still a gray area. For example, if police have knowledge of ongoing clerical errors, does that justify suppression of evidence? The issue also becomes especially relevant as society transitions to entirely electronic databases, which will inevitably result in inaccuracies and errors.

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