Jan 14, 2009

Herring v. U.S. : Police Mistakes Don't Always Require the Exclusion of Evidence

As dedicated readers of my blog are aware, the case of Herring v. U.S. involved Herring's argument that illegal drug charges should be dismissed because the police seized the drugs improperly. The officers who arrested Herring and found the illegal drugs had been told that there was a warrant out for Herring's arrest -- this information was wrong; the warrant was no longer valid. Because of this mistake, argued Herring, the officers had no right to arrest or search him, and the 4th Amendment's prohibition of illegal searches and seizures requires that the drugs be excluded from evidence..   

As I correctly predicted in the earlier blog, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the drugs were admissible in evidence. The mistake was an isolated instance of careless record-keeping rather than a reckless exercise of police powers. This type of error should not result in the exclusion of evidence, the majority ruled.

The case signals the continuing debate about the scope of the 4th Amendment. The justices in the majority stress the danger of allowing guilty and sometimes dangerous criminals to go free based on minor police mistakes. The justices in the minority stress that the exclusionary rule protects civil liberties, and that strict application of the 4th Amendment can deter police mistakes. Since this was a 5-4 decision, you can bet that the debate will continue.