Posts Tagged ‘exclusionary rule’

SCOTUS makes a mistake anybody would have made. So it’s okay, right?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

The Fourth Amendment established one of our most important protections against government power: if the police search you or your stuff for evidence, their search must be ‘reasonable’; and if they do get a warrant then it has to be specific, and they’ll need probable cause. In writing, it couldn’t be more straightforward.

In practice, however, its meaning is anything but. Over the years, the courts have dramatically muddied the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Not as badly as the Fifth, perhaps, but badly enough to severely erode the Fourth’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The courts certainly weren’t trying to undermine the Amendment (well, not most of the time, anyway). It’s been a long series of discrete errors, gradually chipping away at what counts as an “unreasonable” search, and what can be done about it. And so legal types have long complained that the courts have been “eroding” our Fourth Amendment protections.

Sometimes this happens because the legally correct outcome sometimes seems so… wrong. What judge wants to let some vile nasty inhuman threat to society go free, on a mere “technicality?” Very often, this sense of “doing the right thing” in fact leads judges to make errors in law — waving away the protections this one bad guy had, and thereby creating a precedent that erases everyone else’s. It’s the “hard cases make bad law” principle, and it’s very real.

Sometimes this erosion happens because the courts simply don’t understand the law they themselves have created! Even the Supreme Court does this. It happens more often than you might think.

And yesterday, the Supreme court did it again.

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The case is Heien v. North Carolina, and in a nutshell the Supremes said this: If a police officer mistakenly thinks something you’re doing is against the law, and if it’s a mistake any reasonable person would have made, then it’s okay if he stops you to investigate. The Court broadened the definition of “reasonable suspicion” so that now an officer can be wrong about what your were doing, and whether it was even illegal in the first place, and he’ll still be allowed to stop and frisk you. Based on the justices’ own understanding of the law, it’s okay, they say.

Actually, it’s not okay. The Supremes themselves were mistaken about the law.

Was it a “reasonable” mistake?

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It looks like, at the heart of this mistake, we’ll find the “Exclusionary Rule.” This is law invented by the courts, specifically for the purpose of enforcing the Fourth Amendment. If you’re charged with a crime, and the police have evidence they unlawfully seized from you, your only protection is the Exclusionary Rule: if the police got evidence by violating your rights, then that evidence cannot be used against you at trial. The officers are not themselves penalized in any way; all we do is take away the evidence that they shouldn’t have had in the first place.

This is a very civilized rule, if you think about it. In any situation, there’s a line the police cannot cross. Every situation is different, and the rules aren’t always clear. If the police themselves might be punished for inadvertently crossing that line, then they’re going to avoid going anywhere near it. Society would lose a lot of evidence that the police could have lawfully obtained. Guilty people whom society really wants to punish will get away with it. That’s bad. A rule meant to deter police conduct is not what we want. Instead, however, the Exclusionary Rule lets police go right up to the line, without fear of repercussion if they mistakenly cross it. All the rule does is take away the evidence they get from crossing the line if that happens. It merely excludes what they shouldn’t have had anyway. The rule has zero deterrent effect on police personally, and only serves as an incentive to collect evidence lawfully if they want to ensure its use at trial. It’s really quite elegant: the lawful evidence is maximized, the unlawful evidence is eliminated. What more could society want?

The problem comes when judges are mistaken about the law. When they say the Exclusionary Rule is all about deterrence. Which is precisely what the Rule isn’t about. They get the whole purpose of the Rule wrong, and then they base the rest of their reasoning off of that wrong premise. And they reach a result that’s not only wrong, but inconsistent, confusing, overcomplicated, and unjust. There’s some satisfaction in the guilty being punished, but in so doing they’ve made things worse for everyone else.

So say the police got a bad warrant, but they didn’t know it was bad. Acting in good faith, they seize evidence the Fourth Amendment absolutely forbids them from having. But they didn’t know it was bad. They sincerely and reasonably thought it was good. There’s no way to deter people against being reasonably mistaken. You just can’t. So if you think the Exclusionary Rule is about deterrence, you’ll have to conclude that it’s literally pointless if the police were acting in good faith. And if you’re a court, you carve out an exception to the Fourth Amendment — a “Good Faith” exception –and our protections are eroded just a little bit more.

It happens all the time, and it happened yesterday.

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As one might expect when a court is arguing from a mistaken premise, the Court’s justification was convoluted and strange. In an area where one would expect the law to be fairly current and on point, the Supreme Court had to reach way back to its earliest cases, especially about international-border customs seizures as opposed to Fourth Amendment seizures, to find something to justify itself. You can read the case itself here, and Scotusblog has a typically excellent analysis here.

The legal issue is whether “reasonable suspicion” is still “reasonable” if the police officer is wrong on the law. “Reasonable suspicion” itself is about the police officer’s assessment of the facts on the ground, whether he’s seeing someone casing a bank to rob it, or someone who’s just pacing back and forth in front of it lost in thought. Police officers aren’t mind readers, and so their suspicion can be reasonable even if their conclusion turns out to be wrong. The whole point of “reasonable suspicion” is to allow the police to investigate whether their suspicion is correct.

It’s never been about whether the officer’s understanding of the law was correct. We want to let the officer stop you to investigate whether his assessment of the facts was correct. An officer doesn’t need to stop you to investigate whether his understanding of the law is correct. It doesn’t even make sense to say reasonable suspicion is reasonable if the officer was wrong on the law.

The Court’s ruling essentially broadens the definition of reasonable suspicion so that an officer can be wrong about what your were doing, and whether it was even illegal in the first place, and he’s still allowed to stop and frisk you.

Though it didn’t say so explicitly, the Court was essentially making the same “good faith” mistake all over again. A police officer is mistaken on the law. Not because he didn’t study it carefully, or because he was sloppy — no, it’s an error that any reasonable person would have made. Anyone would have thought you were breaking the law, despite the fact that what you were doing was technically legal. The officer’s mistaken belief wasn’t his fault. It was objectively reasonable. And there’s no way you can deter people from being reasonably mistaken. You just can’t. And so if the Exclusionary Rule is about deterring police conduct, it’s simply pointless to apply it here. So we have to carve out an exception — a “Reasonably Mistaken” exception — and our protections are eroded just a little bit more.

It would be a mistake to argue that the Court was wrong because its reasoning was convoluted and it relied on irrelevant case law, however. That’s not the problem with the decision. It’s only an outcome, a symptom, of the underlying error. Once again, they presumed that the Exclusionary Rule is something it categorically is not. That’s their error. And our cherished Fourth Amendment probably means just a little bit less now, as a result.

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So they were mistaken on the law. But it’s a mistake lots of judges, even those on the Supreme Court, have made before. It’s an “objectively reasonable” mistake.

But that doesn’t make it okay.

Q&A Dump

Friday, September 6th, 2013

I’m on the road today, but I wanted to post something. So I’m going to cheat and cut-and-paste some recent Q&A posts from my Tumblr. If you’re looking for a longer read, go check out my comic, which just completed a long section involving how the Fourth Amendment plays out during different kinds of car stops.

From today:

I don’t know all the facts, of course, and I’m not a Florida lawyer, but from what I’ve read it seems to me like the defense doesn’t have a winning argument here. It’s not unethical to make a losing argument, and lawyers often feel obligated to make every conceivable argument rather than lose an issue for appeal, or in the hope that something sticks — but it might be better to preserve your credibility with the court by choosing those arguments that at least have a teeny bit of merit.

“Stand your ground” laws say that, if you’re lawfully where you are, and someone is then and there about to kill or severely injure you, then even if you could have gotten away safely you’re allowed to use deadly force to defend yourself.

The “Bush Doctrine” is an application in international law of a basic principle of self-defense: you don’t have to wait for the other guy to hit you first before you defend yourself from the coming blow.

From what I understand of the Woodward case, he felt intimidated by these people, but was not in any immediate danger. Nobody was coming at him. Nobody was presently any threat to him.

Instead, he snuck up on a group of people at a barbecue, crawling on his belly to avoid detection. Then he fired a mess of rounds at them, hitting three and killing two. I don’t know what kind of weapon he had, but if the reported numbers of rounds are accurate, then he must have stopped to reload a few times.

This was not self-defense, because he was not in any actual danger at the time. At best, he was defending against some imagined possible future attack that might never have come. I get that he felt terribly harassed, but that’s not the same thing as an actual imminent attack. A hypothetical future attack is not an imminent one.

It was not stand your ground, because first of all he probably wasn’t lawfully there but was trespassing with intent to commit murder; and second of all because he wasn’t reacting to an attack.

The “Bush Doctrine” is just silly to cite, when there are plenty of self-defense cases to cite involving striking the first blow. But even there, the whole point is you’re about to get hit, and you’re defending yourself by making sure that blow doesn’t land on you.

From what I read, it looks like nothing less than cold-blooded premeditated murder, perhaps under great stress from a history of harassment, but in no way justified by it. Very similar to the “battered wife” scenario in my comic, actually.

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Just to make this long answer even longer, here are the playground rules I’ve drilled into my kids since they started school:

1. No matter how angry you get at someone, you’re not allowed to hit them.

2. If someone else is about to hurt you for real, first try to get away.

3. If you can’t get away, try to get a grownup to help you.

4. If you can’t get help, then I want you to hit first, I want you to hit hard, and you’re not allowed to stop hitting them until they can’t hit you any more. Let’s practice some moves.

I guess Woodward’s daddy never taught him that.

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From a couple of days ago:

This started out as an offshoot of my law blog, which has a similar disclaimer. It’s pretty standard for lawyers to state that their legal information isn’t legal advice, and just because you read it that doesn’t make you a client.

We’re all stating the obvious when we do that. (And no amount of disclaimer would help if a lawyer actually did give legal advice.) I imagine every lawyer cringes a bit as he types one out. Nobody in their right mind needs to have this explained.

But not everyone is in their right mind, sadly. You hear stories about how every now and then someone didn’t quite get the concept, which can turn into an unpleasant situation. So lawyers hope their disclaimers deter some of those people — and it’s nice to have something in black and white to point out to them.

It hasn’t happened to me, though. Not yet, anyway.

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Or you could just… you know… try not to get arrested in the first place.

Read them, and not get arrested. Yeah. That might be better.

(Thanks, tho!)

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And from a couple days before that:

Yeah… well… not quite.

18 USC 241 & 242 aren’t really about unlawful search and seizure or other stuff dealt with by the exclusionary rule. They’re about police seriously abusing their power. 241 is about conspiring to injure or threaten or intimidate someone, to hinder their civil rights or to retaliate against exercising their rights. 242 is about abusing their power to actually deprive someone of their civil rights.

And the abuse of power has to be really severe. We’re talking about intentionally making up false evidence, intentional false arrests, sexual assaults, and severely excessive force.

What’s being deterred isn’t merely violating the Fourth or Fifth Amendments, but actual criminal conduct. This goes beyond even a civil rights lawsuit. These are not charges that you could bring yourself. They’d have to be filed by a prosecutor.

For a non-federal example of how states deal with it, here’s a story about a Mississippi sheriff who just got indicted the other day for similar conduct.

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Thanks!

That’s really my purpose here — to dispel all the crazy myths and misinformation that are so prevalent out there, and present the straight facts in a format that’s easy for any high school student or adult to understand.

Not that I want anyone to think they have to accept how things really are. Maybe we ought to do some things differently. I like to think I’m helping people at least make informed arguments one way or the other (and I’ll be honest: I get a real thrill whenever I see people link to the comic in their online debates).

And I love getting messages like this. Totally makes my day. Thanks again!

This is FANTASTIC!

(Sounds like your kid has a great parent, by the way.)

Suppressed Jailhouse Confessions Allowed for Impeachment

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

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The Supreme Court ruled this morning that a confession obtained in violation of the 6th Amendment right to counsel is still admissible on cross-examination to impeach a defendant who testified that someone else did it.

Writing for the 7-2 majority in Kansas v. Ventris today was the always-entertaining Justice Scalia. He summed up the facts more pithily that we could, and we’re keen to see if we can figure out to insert block quotes, so here’s Scalia’s summary:

In the early hours of January 7, 2004, after two days of no sleep and some drug use, Rhonda Theel and respondent Donnie Ray Ventris reached an ill-conceived agreement to confront Ernest Hicks in his home. The couple testified that the aim of the visit was simply to investigate rumors that Hicks abused children, but the couple may have been inspired by the potential for financial gain: Theel had recently learned that Hicks carried large amounts of cash.

The encounter did not end well. One or both of the pair shot and killed Hicks with shots from a .38-caliber revolver, and the companions drove off in Hicks’s truck with approximately $300 of his money and his cell phone. On receiving a tip from two friends of the couple who had helped transport them to Hicks’s home, officers arrested Ventris and Theel and charged them with various crimes, chief among them murder and aggravated robbery. The State dropped the murder charge against Theel in exchange for her guilty plea to the robbery charge and her testimony identifying Ventris as the shooter.

Prior to trial, officers planted an informant in Ventris’s holding cell, instructing him to “keep [his] ear open and listen” for incriminating statements. App. 146. According to the informant, in response to his statement that Ventris appeared to have “something more serious weighing in on his mind,” Ventris divulged that “[h]e’d shot this man in his head and in his chest” and taken “his keys, his wallet, about $350.00, and . . . a vehicle.” Id., at 154, 150.

At trial, Ventris took the stand and blamed the robbery and shooting entirely on Theel. The government sought to call the informant, to testify to Ventris’s prior contradictory statement; Ventris objected. The State conceded that there was “probably a violation” of Ventris’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel but nonetheless argued that the statement was admissible for impeachment purposes because the violation “doesn’t give the Defendant . . . a license to just get on the stand and lie.” Id., at 143. The trial court agreed and allowed the informant’s testimony, but instructed the jury to “consider with caution” all testimony given in exchange for benefits from the State. Id., at 30. The jury ultimately acquitted Ventris of felony murder and misdemeanor theft but returned a guilty verdict on the aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery counts.

The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that “[o]nce a criminal prosecution has commenced, the defendant’s statements made to an undercover informant surreptitiously acting as an agent for theState are not admissible at trial for any reason, including the impeachment of the defendant’s testimony.”

In his decision this morning, Scalia pointed out that the exclusionary rule is applied differently, depending on the rights that were violated. The Fifth Amendment’s protection from compelled self-incrimination is enforced with an absolute exclusion — the overriding of an individual’s free will and extraction of a confession is so heinous, that the confession cannot be used either in the prosecution’s case-in-chief, nor in rebuttal, nor for impeachment. The exclusionary rule there is used to prevent violations of the right. On the other hand, the exclusionary rule is not automatic in the Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure context, nor is it absolute, but can instead be used to rebut and impeach the defendant’s testimony.

With respect to the Sixth Amendment, when there is a pretrial interrogation of a defendant — after the defendant has been formally charged — the defendant has the right to have a lawyer present. Apart from that, it only guarantees a right to counsel at trial. The reason why there’s a right to counsel at the interrogation stage is because interrogation is a critical stage of the prosecution.

Let’s stop there for a second to point out that this is an odd presumption. It’s odd in that the only interest at stake is the defendant’s interest in beating the rap. We’re not talking about coerced confessions here. The reason for this rule cannot be that we want a witness to the confession, a defense lawyer who can confirm whether it was voluntary or not. Because the attorney can’t testify, and he isn’t likely to be believed in the first place, because he’s interested in protecting his client.

The effect is to stop confessions that otherwise would have been freely made, by requiring counsel whose real purpose is to tell the defendant to shut up. The obvious problem is that, if a lawyer was present, then that would make the police acts even more offensive, violating or infringing on attorney-client confidentiality, which would be even more violative of the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel. Frankly, when the Supreme Court carved out this rule in Massiah, Brewer, etc. they were fighting a non-existent Sixth Amendment problem while ignoring the actual underlying Fourth Amendment problem.

But we digress.

Scalia, too, has problems with Massiah, calling it “equivocal on what precisely constituted the violation. It quoted various authorities indicating that the violation occurred at the moment of the postindictment interrogation because such questioning ‘contravenes the basic dictates of fairness in the conduct of criminal causes.’ But the opinion later suggested that the violation occurred only when the improperly obtained evidence was ‘used against [the defendant] at his trial.’”

Nevertheless, Scalia had no problem deciding that “the Massiah right is a right to be free of uncounseled interrogation, and is infringed at the time of the interrogation.”

So far, so good. Everyone now agrees that there was in fact a Sixth Amendment violation here. The issue now is whether the fruits of that violation must be excluded absolutely, as with a Fifth Amendment violation, or only kept out of the case on direct, as with the Fourth.

In this situation, Scalia argued, the purpose of exclusion would not be prevention of the violation, as it is with the Fifth Amendment. Instead, the purpose would be to remedy a violation that has already occurred, as with the Fourth.

When that is the purpose, there is strong precedent that such excluded evidence is allowed for impeachment. The defendant’s interests are outweighed by the need to prevent perjury, and by the need to ensure the integrity of the trial process. Although the government cannot make an affirmative use of evidence unlawfully obtained, that doesn’t mean the defendant can shield himself against contradiction of his untruths.

Therefore, once a defendant has testified contrary to his excluded statement, the excluded statement is admissible on cross or in rebuttal. “Denying the prosecution the use of ‘the traditional truth-testing devices of the adversary process’ is a high price to pay for vindication of the right to counsel at the prior stage.”

If the rule were any different, Scalia added, if the statements were absolutely excluded, there would be no extra deterrent effect. The odds that any given defendant will actually testify at trial are very small. The odds that he would then testify differently — knowing that the statement would be admissible for impeachment — are even smaller. So letting this come in for impeachment is not going to cause any cops to play games, and get excludable statements in the hopes of using them for impeachment later.

Supreme Court Messes Up — Fails to Clarify Misunderstood Miranda

Monday, April 6th, 2009

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We admit it: we like to skip to the Scalia dissent.

Not because we necessarily agree with his philosophy of jurisprudence. But because it’s a good bet to be an entertaining read. Whether he’s dissenting from an expansive activist or a fellow limited-role jurist, he’s good for a bit of snark while mercilessly pointing out flaws and internal inconsistencies in the other fellow’s opinion.

So when we saw that Alito, and not Scalia, wrote the dissent in this morning’s Corley v. United States decision on the exclusion of statements, we sighed a little and took in the majority opinion first.

Well, we learned our lesson. Alito can give good dissent.

At issue is 18 U.S.C. § 3501. The statute was passed by Congress back in the 60s, in an attempt to undo some of the aggressive jurisprudence of the Warren Court. Particularly, Congress was trying to nullify the Court’s perceived expansion of the Exclusionary Rule with respect to statements. Miranda made statements inadmissible if suspects weren’t advised of their rights before custodial interrogation, and McNabb and Mallory excluded confessions during extended detention prior to arraignment. §3501(a) tried to nullify Miranda by saying that, notwithstanding any warnings, if the statement was voluntary, then it was admissible. §3501(c) similarly said that custodial confessions weren’t automatically inadmissible because of delay, if they were voluntary. Congress flatly said that voluntary statements were going to be admissible.

Now, all this shows is that Congress didn’t understand Miranda or the McNabb-Mallory rule. At heart behind both rules is the concept of voluntariness. If someone voluntarily inculpated themselves, then the Court has never had a problem with admitting that statement into evidence. The only thing that the Court has ever had a problem with — no matter who was on the bench — is involuntary statements being used against people.

Seriously, the single policy that explains all of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the exclusion of statement evidence is this: “We won’t allow the government to convict somebody by overriding that person’s free will.”

So if the defendant was forced to incriminate himself out of his own mouth, then we won’t let that in. We won’t let the government beat confessions out of suspects, and this is all of a piece.

By the same token, we have no problem with taking blood or DNA samples without the suspect’s permission, because we’re not forcing him to convict himself. We’re just taking already-existing physical evidence, not forcing the suspect to create evidence to be used against him.

Hence the rule of Miranda and its progeny: If a reasonable person wouldn’t feel free to leave, and he’s being quizzed by the government, then incriminating response is by definition involuntary. The only way the government can cure that is to make sure the suspect knew his rights against self-incrimination, and knowingly waived those rights.

And hence the rule of McNabb-Mallory: The longer you’re being held by the government without being informed of the charges against you, the less likely anything you say will be voluntary. At some point, your statement is going to be by definition involuntary, unless the government has taken some affirmative action to ensure it really was voluntary.

Given this, §3501 is really a dead letter. Oh, there have been those who argue that its effect is what Congress intended, the nullification of the case law (see, e.g., U.S. v. Dickerson, 166 F.3d 667 (4th Cir. 1999)). But all §3501 says is that, if a statement was really voluntary, then it is admissible. And that is precisely what the case law also says.

So we come to today’s case, Corley v. U.S. The decision was 5-4, split right down the (jurisprudentially) liberal/conservative line. Souter wrote for the majority, joined by Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Breyer. Alito fired off the dissent, joined by Roberts, Scalia and Thomas.

And Souter — whom we like immensely — messed it up. Of all Justices, he was the one we expected to really get it, and lay out the real policy and uphold the majesty and wisdom of the law. Instead, he made a hash of it.

All he had to do is say, “yes, §3501 means what it says. But it does not do what Congress meant. The plain language of the statute does not affect our case law in the slightest.” We are willing to bet money that Scalia would have joined the majority if he had said that. And he might have taken the others with him for a Roberts-pleasing unanimous decision.

But instead, Souter said §3501 meant what it said as to Miranda, but it did not mean what it said as to McNabb-Mallory. His internally-inconsistent, self-contradictory interpretation required 18 pages of justification. At the end, he concluded that Congress didn’t mean to nullify McNabb-Mallory while trying to nullify Miranda, and so a Mirandized confession is still excludable if made during an extensive pre-presentment delay.

Souter’s reasoning was unnecessarily convoluted, and required a patchwork of equally risible arguments to fill in the obvious gaps. In dissent, Alito seems to gleefully dissect each one in turn. You just know he was grinning like a fool while writing (or directing) some of these passages. Oh sure, he tries for a veneer of objectivity with phrases like “the Court cites no authority for a canon of interpretation that favors a ‘negative implication’ of this sort over clear and express statutory language.” But that can’t conceal the snark within. Although Scalia might have had more fun with the point that “although we normally presume that Congress means in a statute what it says there, the Court today concludes that §3501(a) does not mean what it says,” it’s obvious that Alito was enjoying himself too.

Interestingly, the dissent does not disagree with the majority’s result, but only with its analysis. We really do think that if Souter had thought it through, he could have had a unanimous opinion clearing up this misunderstood line of cases for posterity.

That’s okay, we just did it for you.

Justices Miss the Point of the Exclusionary Rule

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

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The Bill of Rights, notably Amendments 4-6, protects accused individuals from improper action by the police. The typical remedy for police violation of these rights is suppression of the evidence that would not have been gathered but for the violation. This Exclusionary Rule protects the justice system, by ensuring that the maximum lawfully-gathered evidence is available, while ensuring that defendants aren’t prosecuted with unlawfully-gathered evidence. Police officers and departments are not punished for violations, because that would create an incentive to avoid borderline situations where evidence could have been obtained lawfully. Rather than do that, the Exclusionary Rule lets officers go right up to the line of what they’re allowed to do, and only takes away what they shouldn’t have been allowed to get.

The Exclusionary Rule is not an individual right, but is rather a remedy that has been crafted over generations of thoughtful jurisprudence. It simultaneously maximizes protection of the individual’s rights, and society’s interest in law enforcement. It balances two powerful and competing interests, and it does the job elegantly. As such, it is a beautiful rule, but one that is nevertheless criticized — both by law-and-order types and by defendant-rights types — when its role is misunderstood. Unfortunately, it is misunderstood all the time.

So it was no surprise to see plenty of misunderstanding of the Exclusionary Rule in yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Herring v. United States (No. 07-513). Split 5-4 (and with delightful sniping in the footnotes), the justices on either side of the ruling tried to clarify what the Exclusionary Rule means, but only demonstrated that they’re missing the point. All of them. In their attempt to clarify the rule, all they did was muddy the waters.

That’s right, we just said that we understand the Exclusionary Rule better than the Supreme Court. Modesty is not our strong suit.

The Herring case arose in Coffee County, Alabama. Bennie Dean Herring was someone who’d had his share of run-ins with law enforcement over the years. His truck was impounded, and he went to the Sheriff’s Department to get something out of it. When one of the Sheriff’s investigators found out, he had the Coffee County warrant clerk check to see if Herring had any outstanding warrants. There weren’t any in Coffee County. Then they called neighboring Dale County to check. The Dale County computers showed an active arrest warrant for failing to show up in court on a felony charge. Based on that information, the Coffee County officer pulled Herring over as he left the impound lot, arrested him, and recovered methamphetamines and an illegal gun.

In the meantime, the Dale County warrant clerk went to get a copy of the warrant, to send to the Coffee County officer. But there wasn’t one in the file. So the clerk checked with the court, and found out that the warrant had been recalled. For whatever reason, the information never got from the Dale County court to the Dale County warrant database. The warrant clerk called the Coffee County warrant clerk immediately, and the warrant clerk immediately called the officer, but the arrest and search had already taken place.

At trial, Herring moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the arrest was illegal, as the warrant it was based on no longer existed. The trial court said the evidence was admissible, because the officer did nothing wrong, and acted in good faith on information that the warrant was still outstanding.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the Coffee County officer did nothing wrong. Any error was independent of that officer. The error was the result of negligence on someone else’s part, and was moreover a negligent inaction rather than some government action. The Circuit therefore held that the negligence was so attenuated from the officer’s actions that any benefit to be gained by suppression, and so the evidence was admissible under the “good faith” rule of U.S. v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984).

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that, even if the search or arrest was unreasonable, the Exclusionary Rule doesn’t always apply. It’s a last resort only. He reiterated that exclusion is not a right of the individual, but is instead a deterrent. The benefits of a deterrent must be weighed against its costs.

Thus, when police have acted in “objectively reasonable” reliance on a warrant that was later held to be invalid, or on a statute that was later declared unconstitutional, or on a court (not police) database that mistakenly stated that an arrest warrant was outstanding, the Supreme Court has held that the evidence was admissible under the “good faith” rule. The Court had held that evidence should be suppressed only when the officer knew or should have known that the search was unconstitutional. Illinois v. Krull, 480 U.S. 340 (1987).

“Objectively reasonable” (or “good faith”) means “a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal, in light of all the circumstances.” It’s not a subjective test of what the officer actually intended, but rather a test of what he should have known. Here, there was no reason to believe that the Coffee County officer wasn’t being objectively reasonable in relying on the information from Dale County’s warrant clerk. So the officer did nothing requiring suppression.

The underlying error didn’t require suppression, either. Here, the clerical error wasn’t the result of a recklessly-maintained system. Nor was it the result of the police planting false information for the purpose of justifying false arrests later on. The kind of clerical error here is not something that the Exclusionary Rule could affect or deter meaningfully.

Roberts concluded by saying “we conclude that when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than a systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, any marginal deterrence does not ‘pay its way.’ In such a case, the criminal should not ‘go free because the constable has blundered.’”

In this opinion, Roberts’ reasoning was certainly sound. However, he amplified the erroneous viewpoint that the proper policy purpose of the Exclusionary Rule is to deter future misconduct. The policy is categorically not to deter. Deterrence is a purpose of punishment, and this is not a rule of punishment. Deterrence gives the police an incentive not to approach the line of impermissibility. That is precisely what the Rule is designed to avoid.

The Exclusionary Rule is not a rule of deterrence or of punishment, but is instead a rule of balancing — balancing individual rights with society’s interests in law enforcement. Roberts does get the concept, as in his discussions of balancing marginal utility against cost. But his repetition of the “deterrence” fallacy just confuses an otherwise clear argument.

Justice Ginsberg similarly the Exclusionary Rule in her dissent (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer). Like Roberts, Ginsberg says the purpose is deterrence. But she goes even further to say that the Rule should be used to deter practically all police error.

This is a much more expansive purpose for the Exclusionary Rule (or as Ginsberg puts it, “a more majestic conception”). She goes so far as to say that any arrest based on carelessly-maintained database information would be unlawful, and would require suppression.

If the Rule were to be used as a deterrent, Ginsberg does make an argument that its marginal utility even in cases of carelessness, like this one, is sufficient to justify its use. Suppressing evidence could very well lead to reforms in the data management, to ensure that the same mistake doesn’t happen again. But exclusion is not the only means to that end, and is not even a very suitable means, as there is no actual pressure on the record-keepers to change their ways. The more effective means would be pressure from police leadership and political superiors to fix the process. Also, exclusion of evidence in County A is hardly likely to influence behavior in County B.

Justice Breyer issued his own dissent, joined by Justice Souter. In it, he makes the same error of ascribing deterrent purposes to the Exclusionary Rule, rather than the purpose of balancing interests. And as a result, he falls into the same trap of reasoning as Ginsberg.

Breyer wants a bright-line rule. Because of his focus on deterrence, he would draw the line between the police and the courts — if the error was made by court personnel, then they are not going to be deterred by suppression, so the Exclusionary Rule should not apply. But if the error was made by any police personnel, then the Rule should apply. Breyer fails to explain, however, how police database clerics are in any way deterred from negligent error by the suppression of evidence seized as a result of such error. He similarly fails to explain how court clerks are somehow different, so that they could not have been so deterred by suppression.

Ginsberg and Breyer’s arguments fall apart because they’re looking at suppression as a punishment, a deterrent, rather than as the result of a balancing of competing interests. Roberts gets it, but he too makes the same mistake to some degree. This decision seems to have muddied the waters, instead of clarifying the rule.

Oh well, better luck next time guys!