WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Wednesday that evidence obtained after illegal searches or arrests based on simple police mistakes may be used to prosecute criminal defendants.
The justices split 5-4 along ideological lines to apply new limits to the court's so-called exclusionary rule, which generally requires that evidence be suppressed if it results from a violation of a suspect's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches or seizures. The ruling will give prosecutors and judges nationwide more leeway to make use of evidence that might have been seen as questionable before.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the guilty should not "go free" just because a computer error or a misunderstanding between police officers led to a wrongful arrest or search. He said that good evidence, even if obtained during a bad search, can be used against a suspect unless the police deliberately or recklessly violated his rights.
The conservative majority acknowledged that the arrest of Bennie Dean Herring of Alabama — based on the mistaken belief that there was a warrant for his arrest — violated his constitutional rights, yet upheld his conviction on federal drug and gun charges.
Coffee County, Ala., sheriff's deputies found amphetamines in Herring's pockets and an unloaded gun in his truck when they conducted a search after his arrest. It turned out that the warrant from neighboring Dale County had been recalled five months earlier, but the Coffee County sheriff's computers had not been updated.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined the chief justice.
The dissenters said the exclusionary rule should be strictly enforced. "The most serious impact of the court's holding will be on innocent persons wrongfully arrested based on erroneous information carefully maintained in a computer data base," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.