Introduction to the Exclusionary Rule

Introduction to the Exclusionary Rule

In the reading assignment for the first chapter, students were encouraged to consider two questions when reading cases: “First, were someone’s rights (usually constitutional rights) violated? Second, if so, so what?” We have thus far focused mostly on the first question, examining how the Court has construed the rights guaranteed by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Yet the second question has arisen from time to time as the Justices debated whether certain behavior by state agents justified the exclusion of evidence. For example, the public safety exception to the Miranda Rule (Chapter 28) rests upon a judgment by the Court that police efforts to manage an ongoing “emergency”—or, to be less dramatic, a plausible urgent threat to public safety—are not the sort of activity that should hinder prosecution. Similarly, the opinions in Brewer v. Williams (Chapter 29) clashed over the propriety of excluding evidence against an accused murderer that police obtained through questionable interrogation techniques. Further, lurking behind the facts and legal analysis of nearly every case included in this book so far has been a defendant’s desire to prevent evidence from being offered by prosecutors. Recall, for example, Terry v. Ohio (Chapter 20), in which the Court held that police may conduct certain searches and seizures without probable cause. John Terry did not bring his case to the Supreme Court because of his interest in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence; instead, he hoped that the Court might somehow prevent the state of Ohio from sending him to prison for carrying the concealed weapon that Officer McFadden found when frisking Terry in Zucker’s store that Cleveland afternoon.

Terry’s desired outcome—the exclusion of evidence—is the same as most of the parties we have seen complaining about state action of one kind or another. Yes, there are exceptions, such as Muehler v. Mena (2005), a lawsuit brought by a woman not found to have committed any crime who objected to how police treated her while executing a search warrant. She wanted money, not a ruling about evidence. We will turn later to the doctrine governing when money damages are available as a remedy for constitutional harms.

For now, and for the bulk of this unit, we turn to the “exclusionary rule,” a term that covers various doctrines through which the Court has prohibited certain uses of unlawfully-obtained evidence.

Underlying all debate on the exclusionary rule, one finds two facts. Although not always explicitly acknowledged, these facts pervade the Justices’ reasoning in exclusionary rule cases. First, when courts prevent prosecutors from using relevant, reliable evidence against criminal defendants, courts impede the fight against crime. One can debate the extent of the impediment—critics of the exclusionary rule tend to imagine higher hurdles than those described by supporters of the doctrine. Yet no honest defender of the exclusionary rule can deny that, in at least some cases, guilty defendants—sometimes guilty of terrible crimes—go free because of the Court’s criminal procedure jurisprudence. In the words of Justice Cardozo during his time on the Court of Appeals of New York, “The criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered.”

Second, remedies other than the exclusionary rule have not been effective in preventing police from violating the rights announced in Supreme Court opinions—that is, the rights described in books like this one. Other remedies exist, including money damages, internal police department discipline, and oversight by elected officials. Again, one can debate the extent of the problem. Opponents of the exclusionary rule tend to see less police misconduct than do the rule’s supporters, and exclusionary rule opponents tend to have greater faith in the professionalism and goodwill of police department leaders and the politicians to whom they report. Yet police departments—from top leaders to officers on the street—worry about losing evidence to the exclusionary rule and govern their behavior, at least in part, to avoid that judicial remedy.

In short, the exclusionary rule promotes police conformity with Supreme Court criminal procedure decisions, and it does so at the cost of evidence otherwise available to convict accused criminals. As Judge Friendly put it, “The basis for excluding real evidence obtained by an unconstitutional search is not at all that use of the evidence may result in unreliable factfinding. The evidence is likely to be the most reliable that could possibly be obtained; exclusion rather than admission creates the danger of a verdict erroneous on the true facts. The sole reason for exclusion is that experience has demonstrated this to be the only effective method for deterring the police from violating the Constitution.”71 

Some might quibble with Judge Friendly’s statement that the “sole reason” for the exclusionary rule is to deter police misconduct. For example, perhaps apart from deterrence, exclusion is justified because courts will lose respect from the people if they allow agents of the state to prosecute the accused using evidence obtained illegally. That said, deterrence is the primary justification offered by the Court, especially in recent decades. Students should consider which justifications, if any, they find persuasive. 


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