Court Allows Harvesting Fruit From Poisonous Tree
Bennie Dean Herring went to the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department to retrieve something from his impounded truck on July 7, 2004. Investigator Mark Anderson asked the county’s warrant clerk, Sandy Pope, to check for any outstanding warrants for Herring’s arrest. When she found none, Pope checked with her counterpart in neighboring Dale County, Sharon Morgan. Morgan checked Dale County’s computer database and relayed to Pope an active arrest warrant for Herring’s failure to appear on a felony charge.
Anderson and a deputy followed Herring out of the impoundment lot, pulled him over and arrested him while Morgan attempted to fax over a copy of the warrant to Pope. Anderson’s search of Herring’s person revealed methamphetamine in Herring’s pocket and a pistol (illegal for a felon to posses).
However, Morgan could not produce the warrant. After checking with a court clerk, Morgan learned that the warrant had been rescinded five months ago, but for whatever reason, the court had not informed Morgan of the change. He attempted to relay this information to Anderson through Pope, but the arrest and search had already occurred.
Herring was indicted by the District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, which ruled that even though the evidence would normally have been subject to the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule because the out-of-date warrant did not justify the search, the motion from Herring to suppress the evidence was denied because “the arresting officers had acted in a good-faith belief that the warrant was still outstanding.”
Upon appeal, the Eleventh Circuit court found that the arresting officers were “entirely innocent of any wrongdoing or carelessness” and found the error was due to negligence, not to a deliberate or tactical choice. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the previous decisions of the District and Circuit courts.
This ruling reaffirms the Supreme Court’s 1995 Arizona v. Evans ruling, in which the application of the exclusionary rule to suppress evidence requires deliberate action or knowledge of violation of normal requisites for arrest; in essence, because the arresting officer was using “good-faith reliance” on the warrant’s accuracy, the error lies in related but irrelevant negligence that is not the fault of the arresting officer.
Although the court’s logic seeks to further refine the benefits of excluding evidence in preserving rights, it errs on the side of convicting post hoc criminals rather than sticking to long-established principles of evidence admission. This ruling opens up terrible possibilities for subjective judgment of an officer’s “good-faith” in the legitimacy of his or her arrest, opening up not just the margin of error for the system of arrest, but undermining its legitimacy as well.
Certainly Investigator Anderson was not at fault for proceeding to arrest and search a man he believed legally needed to be brought to justice, but bending established laws that protect privacy and due process devalues that protection, thereby establishing precedent for end results that justify the means. Although this ruling would only allow future admission of evidence normally excluded if the officer was deemed (by a judge or jury of his peers) legally justified in his actions to his knowledge at the time of the arrest, it still allows evidence that would not have been exposed were the justice system working at maximum efficiency. Rewarding incompetence and punishing the logically illegal but illegally recognized evidence violates the trust in a legal system where the citizen is innocent until proven guilty.
The exclusionary rule is necessary for maintaining the separation of powers and reassures the need for any branch of government to instill checks and balances. Without this rule, government agents are able to potentially ignore warrants, which thereby negates the judiciary’s role in keeping the executive branch from overstepping its established boundaries. By keeping the rule, agents are forced to respect the judiciary’s supervisory duties to uphold established privacy and civil rights laws.
The Fourth Amendment also maintained a balance. The police cannot act like Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” and simply run around breaking in doors depending on “gut feelings” of a future crime. The rule gives police the incentive to keep their records updated and avoid rewarding the mistakes that enabled Herring v. U.S. to happen.
With smaller restrictions on warrants, there is also a greater risk that agents will take advantage for personal gain. This already happened in 1994, when an Oklahoma man had a warrant to search his home, specifically for a few weapons. When the police left his house that day, they brought with them bows and arrows, a riding lawn mower, several stereo systems and multiple televisions. In court, the officer pleaded that these items were necessary to implicate the man for the crimes he committed. This is ludicrous and demonstrates the necessity of the exclusionary law.
Warrants are necessary prerequisites for restricting police action to the realm of any magistrates’ professional judgment of criminal activity rather than opening the door to different interpretations for justifying police procedures. Although the Fourth Amendment was interpreted to protect the due process of acquiring evidence 123 years after the Bill of Rights was implemented, this ruling that preserved the exclusionary cause had stood for 94 years and should be respected for its balancing effects between judicial and enforcement branches.
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