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Supreme Court Decision Weakens Exclusionary Rule

By: Gerri L. Elder

On Jan. 14, in a split decision, the Supreme Court ruled that evidence found during an unlawful arrest may be used against the defendant in a criminal case. The decision shocked many since the exclusionary rule generally requires the suppression of such evidence obtained through police misconduct.

The New York Times reported Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, said judges should use discretion when deciding if police misconduct should lead to the suppression of evidence, and evidence should be suppressed only as a last resort.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Chief Justice Roberts.

Chief Justice Roberts explained in the decision that for evidence to be suppressed, the police misconduct must be sufficiently deliberate and culpable in a way that the exclusionary rule meaningfully deters the misconduct. He went on to say the deterrence must be worth the expense of possibly allowing guilty and dangerous defendants go free.

Roberts wrote for the majority that the rule was not likely to prevent isolated careless record keeping and should be reserved for “deliberate, reckless or grossly negligent conduct, or in some circumstances recurring systemic negligence.”

Writing for the dissenters, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the exclusionary rule requires more than an acceptable cost-benefit ratio to deter police misconduct. She argued the exclusionary rule must also protect defendants’ rights and prevent the judicial system having involvement and culpability in “official lawlessness.”

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer joined Justice Ginsburg in dissent. She wrote the majority “underestimates the need for a forceful exclusionary rule and the gravity of record keeping violations,” especially since law enforcement agencies now rely heavily on computer databases that “form the nervous system of contemporary criminal justice operations.”

The Supreme Court had considered the reach and durability of the exclusionary rule in the criminal case of Bennie D. Herring. Due to a computer error, Herring was arrested when the police mistakenly thought there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. During the arrest process, officers found methamphetamines and a gun in Herring’s possession.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the lower courts were right to allow the jury in Herring’s criminal case to hear evidence regarding the drugs and gun. Herring was convicted and sentenced to 27 months in an Alabama prison.

Legal experts speculate that this Supreme Court ruling may have far-reaching consequences on criminal cases across the country.

Craig M. Bradley, a law professor at Indiana University, told The New York Times the ruling could be perceived by courts as a nod to ignore police misconduct and negligence.

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