'Good Faith' Revisited

The Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule is not absolute. In a number of decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that even where a police officer makes an unreasonable search or seizure, there may be compelling reasons not to exclude resulting evidence.

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The Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule is not absolute. In a number of decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that even where a police officer makes an unreasonable search or seizure, there may be compelling reasons not to exclude resulting evidence. This is because the court's only rationale for keeping relevant evidence from the jury is to provide a disincentive for officers to conduct improper searches and seizures. In situations where suppression of evidence is not likely to deter police misconduct, there is no reason to exclude the evidence. (Illinois v. Krull)

A previous "Point of Law" focused on the "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule. In a decision in 2011, the Supreme Court added a new application of this exception.

Admissibility Doctrines

Exceptions to the exclusionary rule have generally involved one or more of six court-created doctrines:

  1. The "standing" doctrine. If the search or seizure did not infringe the suspect's personal, legitimate Fourth Amendment rights, he cannot move to suppress the evidence. (Rakas v. Illinois)
  2. The "objective justification" doctrine. Even though an officer may have misidentified the proper justification for a search or seizure, if the officer's conduct can actually be justified on some objective basis, there is no exclusion. (Devenpeck v. Alford)
  3. The "attenuated taint" doctrine. Despite a Fourth Amendment error by police, subsequent intervening events may break the chain of causation between the illegality and discovery of the evidence. (Wong Sun v. U.S.)
  4. The "inevitable discovery" doctrine. Evidence prematurely found through an unreasonable search or seizure need not be suppressed if it would have been found lawfully in due course. (Nix v. Williams)
  5. The "independent source" doctrine. Where two or more avenues-one lawful and one unlawful-lead to evidence, the lawful source that is independent of the unlawful route to the evidence permits its introduction. (Murray v. U.S.)
  6. The "good faith" doctrine. If an officer's approach to a search or seizure does not pass the court test of constitutional reasonableness, the evidence may still be admitted if the officer's conduct was objectively reasonable and was pursued in good faith. (U.S. v. Leon)

The "Good Faith" Exception

The Supreme Court has given the following reasoning for adoption of the "good faith" doctrine:

"Where the officer's conduct is objectively reasonable, excluding the evidence will not further the ends of the exclusionary rule in any appreciable way; for it is apparent that the officer is acting as a reasonable officer would and should act in similar circumstances. Excluding the evidence can in no way affect his future conduct, unless it is to make him less willing to do his duty." (Illinois v. Krull)

"Where the official action was pursued in complete good faith, the deterrence rationale loses much of its force." (Michigan v. Tucker)

Over the years, the Supreme Court applied the good faith doctrine in a limited number of situations, as follows:

  • Faulty search warrants. A reviewing court may find that a search warrant was improperly issued by a magistrate for some reason (for example, the supporting affidavit failed to establish probable cause for the search). If the error was not so glaring that it should have been obvious to an officer who served that warrant in good faith, the evidence is not suppressible. (Massachusetts v. Sheppard)
  • Recalled arrest warrant. At a detention, a records check may reveal an outstanding arrest warrant for the suspect. If the person is arrested and searched in good-faith reliance on the information and evidence is found, that evidence is not excludable simply because the court clerk or records custodian made a mistake in failing to recall the warrant. (Arizona v. Evans; Herring v. U.S.)
  • Unconstitutional statute. After an officer has made an arrest for violation of a statute, a subsequent ruling by a court that the statute is unconstitutional does not require suppression of evidence discovered incident to arrest. (Michigan v. DeFillippo)
  • Misidentification. Taking custody of a person who closely matches the description of a fugitive or suspect is not misconduct, even if he is not the right person. (Hill v. California) Likewise, innocently misidentifying the correct address for serving a search warrant, where the address lends itself to such a mistake, is not deterrable misconduct. (Maryland v. Garrison)
  • Authority to consent. The general rule is that only someone who has a right of access can give a valid consent for police access. However, if it reasonably appears to officers that the consenter has the authority to consent, a good-faith mistake induced by the consenter does not trigger the exclusionary rule. (Illinois v. Rodriguez)

To these categories of good-faith cases, the Supreme Court has added the situation in which a court precedent is changed after the officer searches or seizes, but before the suspect's case concludes in court.

Davis v. U.S.

In 2007, officers in Greenville, Ala., stopped a vehicle in which Willie Gene Davis was a passenger. He was arrested for giving a false name, handcuffed, and secured in the police car. Officers then returned to the vehicle and searched it, finding a firearm that was offered against Davis in a federal prosecution for being an ex-con with a gun. He unsuccessfully moved to suppress the weapon as the fruit of an unlawful search (the decision in this case does not discuss how Davis established his "standing" to bring the motion, since passengers ordinarily do not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in someone else's vehicle).

By the time Davis's appeal was heard, the U.S. Supreme Court had changed the rules on vehicle searches incident to arrest. Overruling the longstanding rule that a lawful arrest of a recent occupant of a vehicle justifies a search even after the arrestee is secured, the Supreme Court held in Arizona v. Gant in 2009 that once the person is secured, an incidental vehicle search may only be conducted where there is reason to believe the search will reveal evidence of the arrest offense. In light of Gant, Davis asked the Supreme Court to give him the benefit of a retroactive application of the exclusionary rule.

The Supreme Court, upholding the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, refused to suppress the gun. The court agreed that the vehicle search incident to Davis's arrest would not have been permissible under Gant, but the court held that the officer committed no misconduct in relying on existing pre-Gant court rulings, so there was nothing to deter. Therefore, the exclusionary rule did not apply to Davis's case. The court said this:

"We have said time and again that the sole purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter misconduct by law enforcement. 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. Evidence obtained during a search conducted in reasonable reliance on binding precedent is not subject to the exclusionary rule.

"It is one thing for the criminal to go free because the constable has blundered. It is quite another to set the criminal free because the constable has scrupulously adhered to governing law." (Davis v. U.S.)

Devallis Rutledge is a former police officer and veteran prosecutor who currently serves as Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County District Attorney. He is the author of 12 books, including "Investigative Constitutional Law."


The "Good Faith" Doctrine

Vehicle Searches: Incident to Arrest

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DA Special Counsel
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