Supreme Court: Procedural Problems Don't Mitigate Crimes E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

In another positive decision from the perspective of law enforcement, The Supreme Court has ruled that evidence obtained from an unlawful arrest based on careless record keeping by the police may be used against a criminal defendant. The 5-to-4 decision was a close one, with the new conservative majority prevailing in their views on the exclusionary rule, which requires the suppression of some evidence obtained through police misconduct. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, wrote in the decision that the exclusion of evidence should be a last resort and that judges should use a "sliding scale" in deciding whether particular misconduct by the police warranted suppressing the evidence they had found.

"To trigger the exclusionary rule," Chief Justice Roberts wrote, "police conduct must be sufficiently deliberate that exclusion can meaningfully deter it, and sufficiently culpable that such deterrence is worth the price paid by the justice system." Roberts defined the "price" as "letting guilty and possibly dangerous defendants go free."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the dissenting judges, argued for "a more majestic conception" of the exclusionary rule - whatever that means. The value of the exclusionary rule requires "more than a cost-benefit calculus to deter police misconduct," Justice Ginsburg wrote. It also protects defendants' rights, she said, and prevents judicial complicity in "official lawlessness."

The case originates from charges when police found methamphetamines and a gun after Bennie D. Herring, an Alabama man, was arrested based on police officers' mistaken belief that he was subject to an outstanding arrest warrant. The officer's belief was based on incorrect information in the computer files of a neighboring county's police department - a common occurrence. The warrant had in fact been withdrawn, but the database had not been updated. Chief Justice Roberts said the error on the part of the officer was "isolated negligence attenuated from the arrest." Roberts went on to say that the lower courts had been correct in allowing the jury in Mr. Herring's case to consider the evidence. He was convicted and sentenced to 27 months in prison.

The decision in the case, Herring v. United States, No. 07-513, may have broad consequences, said Craig M. Bradley, a law professor at Indiana University. "It may well be," Professor Bradley told the New York Times in a recent interview, "that courts will take this as a green light to ignore police negligence all over the place." But Chief Justice Roberts, who was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., said the exclusionary rule was unlikely to deter isolated careless record keeping and should be reserved for "deliberate, reckless or grossly negligent conduct, or in some circumstances recurring systemic negligence." In a separate dissent, Justice Breyer, who was joined by Justice Souter, called for a "clear line" between "police record keeping errors and judicial ones."

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