The U.S. Supreme Court has muddled a vital safeguard against illegal police searches. It has watered down the exclusionary rule, a restriction on using evidence in a criminal trial that was found during an unlawful search. The court ruled if the search is unlawful due to careless record-keeping by police, the exclusionary rule does not apply.
This is a significant erosion of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. It reduces incentives for police to keep proper records and will lead to legal fights over whether unconstitutional police actions were negligent or deliberate.
The case of Herring vs. United States involves the arrest of ex-felon Bennie Dean Herring on an invalid warrant. A deputy found methamphetamine in Herring's pocket and an illegal firearm in his vehicle. He was convicted on drug and weapons charges, and the court ruled on whether the evidence was properly used at trial. All agreed the search was unconstitutional because the arrest warrant had been recalled. The arresting officer didn't know about the recall because it was not in a computer database.
The court ruled 5-4 last week the evidence could be used. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority, said the exclusionary rule should not be applied in every case. In this case, he reasoned, the illegal search was the result of police carelessness, not deliberate manipulation.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in dissent that good record-keeping reduces improper arrests and that courts will be forced to decide whether illegal police conduct was deliberate, reckless or negligent.
This new limit on the exclusionary rule puts individual liberty at risk.