RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Coffee County Sheriff's Department
DOCKET NO.: 07-513
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 555 US (2009)
GRANTED: Feb 19, 2008
ARGUED: Oct 07, 2008
DECIDED: Jan 14, 2009
Michael R. Dreeben - Deputy Solicitor General, argued the cause for the United States
Pamela S. Karlan - argued the cause for the petitioner
Facts of the case
The Coffee County, Alabama Sheriff's Department apprehended Bennie Herring in July of 2004. Upon searching Herring's vehicle, officers discovered methamphetamine in Herring's pocket and a gun under the seat of his truck. However, the situation was complicated by the fact that the initial search had been made on a faulty arrest warrant. The warrant, still active in the neighboring Dale County Sheriff's Office, was supposed to have been recalled five months prior, however someone had accidentally failed to remove it from the computer system. Herring filed a motion to suppress the allegedly "illegally obtained" evidence, however the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama denied Herring's motion and sentenced him to 27 months in prison.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the conviction, stating that illegally obtained evidence should only be suppressed when doing so could "result in appreciable deterrence" of future police misconduct. In his petition for certiorari, Herring pointed to an Arkansas case with nearly identical facts that had come out the other way, noting that "as policing becomes ever more reliant on computerized systems, the number of illegal arrests and searches based on negligent recordkeeping is poised to multiply." The Court granted certiorari on February 19, 2008.
Does a court violate the Fourth Amendment rights of a criminal defendant by introducing evidence obtained through a police search based on an arrest warrant that should have been recalled, but was negligently allowed to remain active, at the time of the search?
Media for Herring v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 07, 2008 in Herring v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 14, 2009 in Herring v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
I have our opinion this morning in case 07-513, Herring versus United States.
This is a case about whether the police can use evidence they find as a result of a mistaken arrest.
The petitioner, Bennie Dean Herring, went to the Sheriff's Department to retrieve something from his impounded truck.
An office who saw him asked the Sheriff's Department warrant clerk to check to see if there was an outstanding warrant for Herring's arrest, there was not.
The officer then asked the clerk to check with her counterpart in the neighboring county, the clerk did check and that clerk checked her computer and said, “Yes, there was a warrant for Herring's arrest.”
Acting on that information, the officer promptly arrested Herring and found methamphetamine and a gun that Herring as a felon was not allowed to possess.
It turned out, however, that the clerk from the other county was wrong and she went to retrieve an actual copy of the warrant, she discovered that it had been recalled.
That fact should have been noted in the computer database, but was not.
She immediately called the other warrant clerk who immediately called the officer.
All of that took place in about 10 to 15 minutes, but Herring had already been arrested during that time.
Now, when Herring was prosecuted, he argued that the Government should not be allowed to use the drugs or the gun as evidence against him because they have been discovered as a result of an unlawful arrest.
The lower courts disagreed concluding that the evidence could be admitted even though the arrest was unlawful.
We granted certiorari to review that determination.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
We've held that usually requires the police to have probable cause or a warrant before arresting someone.
Now, here, Herring and the Government both agreed that his arrest violated the Fourth Amendment because there was no warrant.
We do not decide that issue.
The issue instead is assuming that the arrest violated the Fourth Amendment must the evidence seized be excluded.
Our cases have applied what is knows as the exclusionary rule under which illegally seized evidence cannot be admitted in court.
This is a judicially creative rule.
It is not an individual right, but instead, aims to deter violations of the Fourth Amendment.
The idea is that if the police cannot use evidence from an illegal search, there is likely to be fewer illegal searches.
Now, given that purpose, our precedents establish that the rule does not apply when it will not result in real deterrence or when the benefits of any deterrents are outweighed by the cost.
The cost of course is the prospect that the guilty and possibly dangerous will go free.
Now, to the extent that our case has justified applying the exclusionary rule, we have said that it depends not only on its deterrent affect, but also on the culpability of the police.
If you look at the cases in which we developed the exclusionary rule, you will see that they involved deliberate and flagrant violations of the Fourth Amendment.
The bookkeeping negligence here is a far cry from those concerns.
The negligent error here was neither reckless nor widespread.
Not only was the conduct here less culpable than in the cases in which we developed the exclusionary rule.
That fact also means that there is likely to be little deterrence from excluding the evidence.