Exclusionary Rule: Exceptions

Exceptions to the Exclusionary Rule

Even if a criminal defendant has standing to invoke the exclusionary rule, not all evidence found as a result of police violating the defendant’s constitutional rights will be excluded. The following cases build upon the limitations to the exclusionary rule described in the previous chapter.

Notes, Comments, and Questions 

In Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984), the Court considered once again the conviction of Robert Williams for the murder of 10-year-old Pamela Powers, who disappeared from a YMCA building in Des Moines, Iowa on Christmas Eve in 1968. The case returned to the Court because after the decision in Brewer v. Williams (Chapter 29), Iowa prosecutors retried Williams. In the second trial, prosecutors did not offer evidence of the statements Williams made during his car ride, the ones elicited by the “Christian Burial Speech.” They did, however, offer physical evidence found as a result of Williams’s statements, including the body of Powers.

Building on the independent source exception described in Murray, the Nix Court created what has become known as the “inevitable discovery” exception to the exclusionary rule. When considering whether to adopt the new exception—which had already been approved by several lower courts—the Supreme Court first reviewed the justification for the exclusionary rule:

“The core rationale consistently advanced by this Court for extending the exclusionary rule to evidence that is the fruit of unlawful police conduct has been that this admittedly drastic and socially costly course is needed to deter police from violations of constitutional and statutory protections. This Court has accepted the argument that the way to ensure such protections is to exclude evidence seized as a result of such violations notwithstanding the high social cost of letting persons obviously guilty go unpunished for their crimes. On this rationale, the prosecution is not to be put in a better position than it would have been in if no illegality had transpired.”

The Court then revisited the grounds supporting the independent source doctrine and applied them to the slightly different situation presented in Nix.

“The independent source doctrine teaches us that the interest of society in deterring unlawful police conduct and the public interest in having juries receive all probative evidence of a crime are properly balanced by putting the police in the same, not a worse, position that they would have been in if no police error or misconduct had occurred. When the challenged evidence has an independent source, exclusion of such evidence would put the police in a worse position than they would have been in absent any error or violation. There is a functional similarity between these two doctrines in that exclusion of evidence that would inevitably have been discovered would also put the government in a worse position, because the police would have obtained that evidence if no misconduct had taken place. Thus, while the independent source exception would not justify admission of evidence in this case, its rationale is wholly consistent with and justifies our adoption of the ultimate or inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule.”

After Powers disappeared from the YMCA, police found some of her clothing near a rest stop in Grinell, Iowa. Next, police “initiated a large-scale search. Two hundred volunteers divided into teams began the search 21 miles east of Grinnell, covering an area several miles to the north and south of Interstate 80. They moved westward from Poweshiek County, in which Grinnell was located, into Jasper County. Searchers were instructed to check all roads, abandoned farm buildings, ditches, culverts, and any other place in which the body of a small child could be hidden.” Before the volunteers found the body, Williams led police to the hiding spot.

The Court applied the new inevitable discovery rule as follows:

“On this record it is clear that the search parties were approaching the actual location of the body, and we are satisfied, along with three courts earlier, that the volunteer search teams would have resumed the search had Williams not earlier led the police to the body and the body inevitably would have been found.”

In dissent, Justices Brennan and Marshall did not object to the new doctrine in principle. They argued that for the inevitable discovery exception to apply, the prosecution should be required to prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that the requirements had been met. The majority held that “preponderance of the evidence” was sufficient.



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