Evidence Is Valid, Despite Police Error

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that evidence seized in an improper arrest does not always have to be thrown out by the courts, provided the error was the "result of isolated negligence" on the part of the police.

The court's conservative members held sway in a 5 to 4 decision that upheld the drug and gun-possession conviction of an Alabama man who had been arrested only because a computer mistakenly indicated that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the incident was more of a "bookkeeping" error than an attempt by police to skirt the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

"We conclude that when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements," the evidence need not be barred from use at trial, Roberts wrote. He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The decision prompted an immediate debate about whether it was a logical extension of previous rulings or a dramatic change in how the court views the Fourth Amendment.

Dissenters said the opinion dramatically weakened the protections of the "exclusionary rule," which enforces the Fourth Amendment and is meant to deter the police from breaking the law to obtain evidence against suspects.

"The most 'serious impact' of the court's holding will be on innocent persons 'wrongfully arrested based on erroneous information [carelessly maintained] in a computer data base,' " Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. She was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.

She said the decision would give law enforcement great leeway in justifying arrests and little incentive to correct problems such as defective computer databases.

There is no dispute that it turned out that officers in Coffee County, Ala., did not have cause to arrest Bennie Dean Herring in 2004, but they did not know it at the time. Herring was well-known to law enforcement, and when he showed up to retrieve something from his impounded truck, officers checked to see whether there was an outstanding arrest warrant.

A clerk in a neighboring jurisdiction said there was, so officers promptly arrested Herring and then found methamphetamine in his pocket and a pistol -- which as a felon he could not lawfully possess -- in his truck. About 15 minutes later, the clerk called back to say that the computer had made an error and that the warrant had been withdrawn months earlier.

Herring argued to lower courts that the evidence should have been suppressed because the rescinded warrant meant his arrest was illegal.

But Roberts wrote that the judicially created exclusionary rule did not provide that such evidence be automatically kept from juries. He said justices decided in 1995 that a similar computer mistake -- in that case, attributable to judicial personnel -- was a "good-faith" error that did not warrant throwing out an arrest.


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