June 16, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Davis v. United States

On June 16, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Davis v. United States, No. 09-11328, holding that searches conducted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding precedent are not subject to the exclusionary rule.

While conducting a routine traffic stop in Greenville, Alabama, police arrested Willie Davis, a passenger in the vehicle, for giving a false name.  After handcuffing Davis and securing the scene, police searched the vehicle and found Davis's revolver.  Davis was then indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

In New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), the Supreme Court held that a police officer who has made a "lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile" may, incident to that arrest, search the automobile's passenger compartment.  In a suppression motion, Davis acknowledged that the search of the vehicle complied with Eleventh Circuit precedent interpreting Belton, but raised a Fourth Amendment challenge to preserve the issue on appeal.  The district court denied Davis's motion and Davis was convicted.

While Davis's appeal was pending, the Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant, 552 U.S. 1230 (2008).  In Gant, the Court adopted a new rule governing automobile searches incident to arrests of recent occupants.  Under this new rule, such a search is constitutional if (1) the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle during the search; or (2) the police have reason to believe the vehicle contains "evidence relevant to the crime of arrest."  Applying Gant to Davis's appeal, the Eleventh Circuit held that the vehicle search incident to Davis's arrest violated Davis's Fourth Amendment rights.  Yet the court nonetheless declined to suppress the revolver and affirmed Davis's conviction.

The Supreme Court affirmed.  The purpose of the exclusionary rule, the Court stated, is to deter police misconduct.  Where a search does not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment under binding precedent at the time of the search, exclusion of evidence collected in that search would serve no meaningful deterrent purpose.  Moreover, the exclusion of evidence in this circumstance would come at a high cost to both truth and public safety.  Weighing these factors, the Court held that exclusion of evidence discovered in reasonable reliance on then-governing precedent is not a proper remedy.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Kagan joined.  Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.  Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined. 

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