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June 16, 2011

Supreme Court on Searches (Davis v. U.S.)

The Supreme Court today held that searches conducted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent are not subject to the exclusionary rule –- even when the court later overrules the precedent. The case is Davis v. United States.  You can read it here.

Police This case involved a major shift in the law about when police could search a vehicle after the arrest of the driver.  In New York v. Belton, 453 U. S. 454 (1981), the Court permitted the police to search the passenger compartment of a automobile incident to arrest of a recent occupants, regardless of whether the arrestee was within reaching distance of the vehicle at the time of the arrest. 

In 2009, in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U. S. ___ (2009), the Supreme Court overruled Belton.  The court adopted a new rule that permitted the police to search an automobile after the arrest of an occupant only if the arrestee was within reaching distance of the vehicle during the search.  (The Court also permitted the search of a vehicle if the police had reason to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of the crime of arrest.)

In Davis, the defendant (and the driver) were arrested in a car. A later serach of the car reveled a gun in the defendant’s jacket. The defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The arrest and serach took place before the court decided Gant. To make it simple: the search was good under Belton, but bad under Gant. The question for the court was whether the evidence should be excluded. 

The court held that the evidence should not be excluded. The court reasoned that the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter police misconduct. In this case, the police acted in accordance with the then-existing law. Therefore, exclusion would not serve any deterrent purpose, and would "suppress the truth and set the criminal loose in the community without punishment."

This opinion likely has significant impact in areas –- like searches of emerging technology –- where the rules are undetermined or the courts have issued conflicting opinions. For example, I described conflicting opinions about when the police can search a cell phone incident to an arrest here and here.  In these areas, even if a search of an electronic device turns out to be unconstitutional, prosecutors will still be able to use the evidence so long as the police aren't violating Fourth Amendment rights in a deliberate, reckless, or grossly negligent manner. 



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