The Supreme Court yesterday rejected an effort by Justice William H. Rehnquist to force a reexamination of the "exclusionary rule," the controversial principle that prevents police and prosecutors from using evidence obtained illegally.
In a rare summer action, Rehnquist had attempted to persuade the court to intervene in a robbery case in which the California Supreme Court had decided that evidence obtained during an illegal search should be suppressed.
"The exclusionary rule certainly deters the police and prosecuting authorities from convicting many guilty defendants," wrote Rehnquist, generally considered the court's most conservative member, in a dissenting opinion.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger endorsed Rehnquist's dissent. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, although he did not sign the dissent, said he too would have delayed the California courts from acting while the justices studied the case.
The other six justices simply announced that they did not want to intervene in the case. Therefore by a vote of 6 to 3, the justices allowed the California Supreme Court decision barring police from using some evidence to take effect, an action that could lead to the release of a man who earlier was convicted of robbery.
The Supreme Court adopted the rule for the federal courts in 1914. The idea was to deter police officers from illegal conduct by forbidding them to use evidence obtained in violation of the law.
Critics have argued that police misconduct should be deterred in some other fashion. These critics contended that a criminal trial is a truth-finding process, and that all evidence relevant to a defendant's guilt or innocence should be considered.
In 1961 the Supreme Court decided that the rule also should apply to cases in state courts.
The case in which the justices acted yesterday arose from an incident on Dec. 19, 1975, when two armed men robbed a Safeway store near San Francisco. A witness got the license number of their car.
When police recovered the car they found a bag containing three guns and closhes matching that worn by the thieves.
The evidence was used to help convict the driver, who was alone in the car when police found it.
But the California Supreme Court overturned the conviction, concluding that police had no right to open the tote bag without a search warrant. The police contended that they were still looking for the second suspect and did not have time to get a warrant.
California officials asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant a stay to block this state court decision from taking effect. Yesterday the justices denied the request.