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Exclusionary Rule: Good-Faith Reliance on Judicial Precedence

Willie Gene Davis v. U.S., USSC No. 09-11328, 6/16/11

… The question here is whether to apply this sanction when the police conduct a search in compliance with binding precedent that is later overruled. Because suppression would do nothing to deter police misconduct in these circumstances, and because it would come at a high cost to both the truth and the public safety, we hold that searches conducted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent are not subject to the exclusionary rule.

The holding of New York v. Belton, 453 U. S. 454, that the police may search a car incident to arrest, was subsequently clarified (“overruled” may go too far) to permit such a search only if the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment, Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009). What happens, then, if the police conduct a search permissible at the time under binding local interpretation of Belton but which turns out to be, while the case wends its way through the courts, impermissible under Gant? Short version: the criminal should not go free because the justices have blundered. Somewhat longer version:

The question in this case is whether to apply the exclusionary rule when the police conduct a search in objectively reasonable reliance on binding judicial precedent. At the time of the search at issue here, we had not yet decided Arizona v. Gant, 556 U. S. ___, and the Eleventh Circuit had interpreted our decision in New York v. Belton, 453 U. S. 454 , to establish a bright-line rule authorizing the search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment incident to a recent occupant’s arrest. Gonzalez, 71 F. 3d, at 825. The search incident to Davis’s arrest in this case followed the Eleventh Circuit’s Gonzalez precedent to the letter. Although the search turned out to be unconstitutional under Gant, all agree that the officers’ conduct was in strict compliance with then-binding Circuit law and was not culpable in any way. See Brief for Petitioner 49 (“suppression” in this case would “impl[y] no assignment of blame”).

Under our exclusionary-rule precedents, this acknowledged absence of police culpability dooms Davis’s claim. Police practices trigger the harsh sanction of exclusion only when they are deliberate enough to yield “meaningfu[l]” deterrence, and culpable enough to be “worth the price paid by the justice system.” Herring, 555 U. S., at 144. The conduct of the officers here was neither of these things. The officers who conducted the search did not violate Davis’sFourth Amendment rights deliberately, recklessly, or with gross negligence. See ibid. Nor does this case involve any “recurring or systemic negligence” on the part of law enforcement. Ibid . The police acted in strict compliance with binding precedent, and their behavior was not wrongful. Unless the exclusionary rule is to become a strict-liability regime, it can have no application in this case.

Indeed, in 27 years of practice under Leon ’s good-faith exception, we have “never applied” the exclusionary rule to suppress evidence obtained as a result of nonculpable, innocent police conduct. …

About all that exclusion would deter in this case is conscientious police work. Responsible law-enforcement officers will take care to learn “what is required of them” under Fourth Amendment precedent and will conform their conduct to these rules. Hudson , 547 U. S., at 599. But by the same token, when binding appellate precedent specifically authorizes a particular police practice, well-trained officers will and should use that tool to fulfill their crime-detection and public-safety responsibilities. An of-ficer who conducts a search in reliance on binding appellate precedent does no more than “ ‘ac[t] as a reasonable officer would and should act’ ” under the circumstances. Leon, 468 U. S., at 920 (quoting Stone, 428 U. S., at 539–540 (White, J., dissenting)). The deterrent effect of exclusion in such a case can only be to discourage the officer from “ ‘do[ing] his duty.’ ” 468 U. S., at 920.

That is not the kind of deterrence the exclusionary rule seeks to foster. We have stated before, and we reaffirm today, that the harsh sanction of exclusion “should not be applied to deter objectively reasonable law enforcement activity.” Id., at 919. Evidence obtained during a search conducted in reasonable reliance on binding precedent is not subject to the exclusionary rule.

Our supreme court addressed this very question, in State v. David A. Dearborn, 2010 WI ¶4: “We hold that the good faith exception precludes application of the exclusionary rule where officers conduct a search in objectively reasonable reliance upon clear and settled Wisconsin precedent that is later deemed unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.” That result appears to be consistent with Davis.

First takes: Lyle Denniston (“the ‘exclusionary rule,’ is fading further as a restraint on police evidence-gathering”); Orin Kerr (unclear whether defendant who successfully challenges adverse 4th A authority in the Supreme Court can himself derive benefit; not even clear if exclusionary rule now applies where law isn’t settled); Jeff Welty (we might be “watching the slow evolution of the exclusionary rule from being the presumptive remedy for most Fourth Amendment violations towards being a remedy principally for intentional misconduct by officers”); Josh Blackman (it’s not all about “social cost,” it’s not limited to the 4th A context).

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