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Inevitable discovery doctrine precludes habeas relief

Darryl J. Sutton v. Randy Pfister, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 15-2888, 2016 WL 4446561, 8/24/16

Sutton filed a habeas petition challenging his sexual assault conviction on the ground the evidence connecting him with the crime was obtained by the state through a conceded violation of the Fourth Amendment in a different case. The district court ruled in his favor, but the court of appeals holds there’s no Fourth Amendment violation because the evidence would inevitably have been discovered.

Sutton was being prosecuted for an attempted sexual assault of A. Rac, and during that prosecution the court ordered the collection of a sample of his blood for DNA testing. As the state concedes, the court order was unsupported by probable cause, so the seizure was unlawful. Sutton was convicted in the Rac prosecution, though the DNA results weren’t used as evidence. The resulting DNA profile was, however, run through a database, and it matched DNA collected after the sexual assault of P. Lally. He moved unsuccessfully to suppress the DNA evidence on the grounds the collection of his blood in the Rac prosecution was unlawful. (Slip op. at 2-5). Sutton then challenged his conviction in the Lally case in state courts, but was unsuccessful (for reasons that were clearly mistaken (slip op. at 4-5) but that ultimately don’t matter here). So he sought habeas relief, and the district court held he was entitled to relief. (Slip op. at 5-6).

The court of appeals takes a different view based on the inevitable discovery doctrine articulated in Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 444 (1984). The court first concludes that doctrine applies to a blood test as readily as to the usual scenarios where the doctrine is invoked (e.g., prematurely entering a house, learning of evidence during an unlawful interrogation). (Slip op. at 10-11). AS to the substance of the doctrine itself, the court relies on a state law that required the judge to order Sutton to give a blood sample after his conviction in the Rac case, even though the judge didn’t do so:

Since there is no categorical reason why the inevitable discovery doctrine cannot apply to the Lally prosecution, we must determine whether the state has shown by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have obtained Sutton’s blood sample lawfully in the absence of the unlawful order from the Rac case. See id. In order to meet this burden, the state points to an Illinois law in effect at the time that required all persons convicted of certain sexual crimes (including those of which Sutton was accused) to provide a blood sample. The relevant statute, Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 38, ¶ 1005-4-3(A) (1991), stated that persons convicted of certain sexual offenses “shall … be required to submit blood samples and saliva to the Illinois State Police.” (The current version is codified at 730 ILCS 5/5-4-3 (2014)). The language in the statute is mandatory, although it obviously was not followed to the letter in the Rac case. The state, which has the burden of demonstrating that the doctrine applies, has not explained why a new sample was not collected after Sutton’s conviction: because the state already had one, or some other reason.

There is a presumption that the police and the courts will follow their routine procedures for issuing warrants. …. Principles of comity advise us to give the state court system this same presumption of regularity. The law on the books required the court to order Sutton to provide a blood sample. This is enough, in our view, to show by a preponderance of the evidence that, but for the fact the state already had a sample from Sutton, it would have collected a sample. (Why engage in a pointless act?) The timing of the collection of Sutton’s blood thus drops out of the case, and the DNA harvested from the sample would inevitably have been discovered after his conviction in the Rac case. The trial court in the Lally case therefore could have admitted that DNA evidence pursuant to the inevitable discovery doctrine, despite the assumed Fourth Amendment violation in the Rac case. (This is not the ground on which the state court relied, but we are not here to grade its opinions, if its ultimate result was reasonable.)

(Slip op. at 12-13).

You might be wondering why the federal courts even reached the merits of Sutton’s Fourth Amendment claim given Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465 (1976), which held that a federal court generally cannot grant habeas relief based on a state court’s failure to suppress evidence collected in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that the exclusionary rule is a means of effectuating Fourth Amendment rights by deterring police misconduct rather than a personal constitutional right of the defendant, and in collateral proceedings that deterrent effect is so weak that it is outweighed by the harm of excluding probative evidence. The district court decided that Sutton’s claim fit an exception under Powell for cases where the petitioner didn’t have a full and fair hearing on his Fourth Amendment claim in state courts, given the mistakes in addressing Sutton’s claims. (Slip op. at 4-5, 6, 9). The court of appeals finds it unnecessary to decide whether Sutton’s case falls within that exception because he’s not entitled to habeas relief if there was no Fourth Amendment violation, and there was no violation given the applicability of the inevitable discovery doctrine. (Slip op. at 9, 13).

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