Syndicated from my weekly column in the Mountaineer Jeffersonian, a weekly paper publication in Morgantown, West Virginia:
A supreme court ruling from mid-January could impact the legality of thousands of police searches each year. At issue is the admissibility of evidence obtained where the possibility of police misconduct or negligence exists. Called the Exclusionary Rule, which is based largely upon the fifth amendment to the constitution, specifically the verbiage that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself” and that no person “shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” and upon the fourth amendment provisions against unreasonable search and seizure. Thus this supreme court case may in fact be quite landmark in that it has watered down these protections for citizens, allowing for greater lee-way for law enforcement agents to act irresponsibly and still enjoy the “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
The case involved an individual by the name of Bennie Herring, whose home was entered based upon a search warrant in a police database. When the police entered his home, they found drugs and a firearm. Unfortunately, no such warrant for Mr. Herring’s arrest should have existed. It had in fact been withdrawn prior to his arrest. The existence of it in the database was purportedly caused by a database malfunction involving the computer systems of a neighboring county’s police department. Mr. Herring, following his unsuccessful appeal to the supreme court, is now serving a 27 month sentence after being found guilty by a jury in Alabama.
Professor Craig Bradley of Indiana University law school was quoted as saying “It may well be that courts will take this as a green light to ignore police negligence all over the place.” Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority in a 5-4 ruling, stated that the exclusionary rule was limited to “deliberate, reckless or grossly negligent conduct, or in some circumstances recurring systemic negligence.” Unfortunately, the existence of errors in law enforcement data is commonplace enough that it could easily be qualified as recurring systemic negligence. According to a 2005 report by the Office of the Inspector General’s audit division in the Department of Justice, the nation’s largest database of potential terrorists included noteworthy amounts of incorrect and incomplete data. A 2006 report from the Social Security Administration went on to document database errors in the Numident database, a system operated by the Department of Homeland Security to enable the identification of individuals by social security number for purposes such as employment eligibility verification and drivers licensing. This report estimated that data for 4.1 percent of the total records could contain errors, impacting the employability of and potentially otherwise inconveniencing 17.8 million US citizens.
Chief Justice Roberts went on to state, “the deterrent effect of suppression must be substantial and outweigh any harm to the justice system,” and that “marginal deterrence does not ‘pay its way.’” He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. On the other side, Justice Ginsberg wrote for the minority that the majority “underestimates the need for a forceful exclusionary rule and the gravity of record keeping violations.” She was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.
This ruling follows on the heels of a 1995 verdict in which a similar judgment was issued. The case, Arizona v. Evans, dealt with a similar issue wherein a database maintained by the courts had contained erroneous information which led to prosecution. In Arizona v. Evans, the supreme court ruled that erroneous records kept by court officials was an exception to the exclusionary rule. This month’s ruling now extends that exception to records maintained by police and other law enforcement agencies.
Flying in the face of what seems to clearly be an accurate reading of the constitution, this ruling sets a dangerous precedent. There is a long and well-documented history of police misconduct in this country which includes, at times, a willingness to operate outside of what is ethical and legal to obtain a desired result. This ruling will unfortunately create a new loophole which crooked or desperate law enforcement agents will be able to use to obtain results while disrespecting the constitutional protections of citizens against unreasonable searches. If “database errors” can be systematically created in such a way that enables police to enter onto any premises at any time to search for evidence, regardless of whether any such warrant has ever been in actuality granted by a judge, the potential for abuse is tremendous. Defense attorneys representing those accused under such circumstances will likely have no means of investigating whether such a database error was created erroneously or was in fact simply a malfunction of hardware or software. Furthermore, given this ruling, it will be nearly impossible for any citizen to defend themselves against such unconstitutional intrusions of their property.