[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] 7-2 in Davis v. United States [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that when the law for what constitutes a legal search changes between a search and an accompanying trial, the evidence is not excluded. Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion states that because suppression of the evidence would do nothing to deter other officers from committing the same error, there’s no reason to enforce the exclusionary rule.
Under our exclusionary-rule precedents, this acknowledged absence of police culpability dooms Davis’s claim. Police practices trigger the harsh sanction of exclusion only when they are deliberate enough to yield “meaningfu[l]” deterrence, and culpable enough to be “worth the price paid by the justice system.” The conduct of the officers here was neither of these things. The officers who conducted the search did not violate Davis’s Fourth Amendment rights deliberately, recklessly, or with gross negligence. Nor does this case involve any “recurring or systemic negligence” on the part of law enforcement. The police acted in strict compliance with binding precedent, and their behavior was not wrongful. Unless the exclusionary rule is to become a strict-liability regime, it can have no application in this case. Indeed, in 27 years of practice under Leon’s good-faith exception, we have “never applied” the exclusionary rule to suppress evidence obtained as a result of nonculpable, innocent police conduct.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a concurrence. Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented, arguing that the new standard created in Arizona v. Gant [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report], which the police unknowingly violated, is enough to find a remedy in suppression of evidence. Breyer believed that had Arizona v. Gant not been decided, there would have been a similar Fourth Amendment violation regardless in the present case to cause a finding similar to Gant, regardless of whether the police acted in good faith or not.
Relying on the standard created in New York v. Belton [text], police arrested Willie Davis and searched his vehicle while he was handcuffed at the scene, finding an unregistered revolver. In the interim between Davis’ arrest and trial, Arizona v. Gant was decided, which overturned Belton and created a “rule” that police could only search the vehicle for what was in the immediate grasp of the suspect. The previous Belton standard had allowed arresting officers to search the passenger compartment. The lower court held that the search was illegal under Gant, but since Gant had not been decided, the police were acting in good faith, and thus did not exclude the evidence.