Nov 19, 2008

Herring v. U.S.: The 4th Amendment Is Back in the Supreme Court

The 4th Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. What should happen when police officers violate the 4th Amendment has been one of the most enduring legal sagas of the past 50 years. In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the "exclusionary rule" that improperly seized evidence is not admissible at trial. Because the exclusion of improperly seized evidence may mean that charges have to be dismissed, critics of the exclusionary rule have argued that "the culprit should not go free just because the constable blundered." However, the Court in Mapp thought it more important to deter improper police behavior, and thought that an exclusionary rule would remove the incentive to seize evidence improperly.

Though the court has never overturned the exclusionary rule, it has from time to time limited its scope. One limitation is known as the "good-faith exception" to the exclusionary rule. What this exception boils down to is that evidence seized in violation of the 4th Amendment is admissible at trial if the police acted in good faith on information they reasonably believed was accurate. 

In November 2008, the Court heard arguments about the scope of the good-faith exception in the case of Herring v. United States. Here's what happened: A police officer arrested Herring after being informed that the sheriff's office of a nearby county had a warrant out for Herring's arrest. The officer searched Herring and found illegal drugs and a weapon. A few moments later, the sheriff's office called back to say "Oops -- our bad. A while back we did have an arrest warrant out for Herring, but not anymore." Had the arresting officer known that no warrant existed, he would have had no right to arrest Herring or search him. Nevertheless, based on the officer's good-faith belief that he did have a right to make the arrest, the drugs and weapon were deemed admissible in evidence and Herring was convicted.

Herring argues that the good-faith exception should not apply to his case because the wrong information was given out by a sheriff's office. Thus, the police were responsible for the "chain of error." Moreover, failure to apply the exclusionary rule will only encourage sloppy police record-keeping. The government responds that an "isolated and negligent" clerical error is not a valid basis for excluding evidence. Moreover, upholding Herring's conviction will not encourage sloppy record-keeping because police agencies have lots of reasons to maintain proper records. For example, improper arrests can subject officers to civil rights lawsuits.

Will the Court apply the good-faith exception to the officer's conduct and affirm Herring's conviction? The trend of decisions suggests that the answer will be, "Yes." Recent 4th Amendment opinions have stressed the increased professionalism of police agencies -- with citizen review boards -- and hence less need for a broad exclusinary rule.  We should have an answer from the Court by early 2009.