No Suppression For Search Following Arrest on Withdrawn Warrant
In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court further eroded our Fourth Amendment protections by holding that the exclusionary rule does not apply to searches that follow an unlawful arrest pursuant to a warrant that, although withdrawn, still appears to be active in police databases. On its surface the result seems reasonable -- the police do not deliberately violate rights when they make arrests in the good faith belief that their databases are accurate -- but in practice the decision will lead to pernicious results.
The problem that the decision addresses is not uncommon. Warrants are issued for all sorts of reasons (including missed court appearances and failures to pay fines) and are routinely withdrawn when the reason for their issuance is rectified (the defendant appears in court or pays the fine). But since databases are not centralized, a police database of outstanding warrants is frequently populated with warrants that are no longer active. Individuals are routinely arrested in the belief that a warrant is outstanding, only to be released when the court verifies that the warrant has been withdrawn.
The Supreme Court's decision gives the police little incentive to keep their databases up to date and thus encourages wrongful arrests. [more ...]
As Justice Ginsberg's dissent makes clear, there is no question that Bennie Herring should never have been subjected to an arrest. Failing to apply the exclusionary rule to the results of the search that followed his arrest undermines the Fourth Amendment.
The exclusionary rule provides redress for Fourth Amendment violations by placing the government in the position it would have been in had there been no unconstitutional arrest and search. The rule thus strongly encourages police compliance with the Fourth Amendment in the future.
While the majority opinion would apply the exclusionary rule to deliberate or systemic error in database management, or to reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, it will as a practical matter be impossible to prove that police clerks who manage databases are deliberately or recklessly failing to purge withdrawn warrants. Nor should that showing be necessary. Justice Ginsburg writes:
The exclusionary rule, the Court suggests, is capable of only marginal deterrence when the misconduct at issue is merely careless, not intentional or reckless. ... The suggestion runs counter to a foundational premise of tort law—that liability for negligence, i.e., lack of due care, creates an incentive to act with greater care.
In other words, if we want the police to keep databases up to date so that individuals are not unnecessarily arrested, we need to give them an incentive to do so. The exclusionary rule accomplishes that purpose. Its application would recognize "the paramount importance of accurate recordkeeping in law enforcement."
I doubt that police forces already possess sufficient incentives to maintain up-to-date records. The Government argues that police have no desire to send officers out on arrests unnecessarily, because arrests consume resources and place officers in danger. The facts of this case do not fit that description of police motivation. Here the officer wanted to arrest Herring and consulted the Department’s records to legitimate his predisposition.
The dissenters joining Justice Ginsberg were, unsuprisingly, Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer.
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