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Exclusionary rule

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Description: Judicially created doctrine proscribing the admissibility at trial of evidence obtained illegally through violation of a defendant's constitutional rights.


Significance: The Supreme Court ruling in 1914 excluded the use of physical evidence gathered through unreasonable search or seizure, and later rulings prohibited any evidence obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process of law.


The exclusionary rule, as applied to Fourth Amendment search and seizure provisions, originated with the Supreme Court's 1914 decision in Weeks v. United States. Although no emergency conditions existed, police officers had twice conducted nonconsensual, warrantless searches of Freemont Weeks's home, obtaining letters and documents that were later used as evidence against him over his objections at trial. Weeks was ultimately convicted, and the Supreme Court addressed his appeal. In a unanimous opinion, the Court noted that the Framers of the Constitution intended through the passage of the Bill of Rights to protect the American people from the general warrants that had been issued under the authority of the British government in colonial times. The Court declared that the courts, which are charged with the support of the Constitution, should not sanction the tendency of those who enforce the criminal laws of the country to obtain conviction by means of unlawful seizures. The Court concluded that if letters and private documents can be seized illegally and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense, the protection of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures is of no value. This newly minted rule was strengthened by Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States (1920), and Agnello v. United States (1925), which made clear that illegally acquired evidence could not be used by the government, regardless of the nature of the evidence. However, the mandatory exclusion of illegally obtained evidence pertained only to federal law enforcement and trials. Although the Court eventually agreed in Wolf v. Colorado (1949) that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited illegal state governmental searches and seizures, it initially maintained that the states did not necessarily have to use the exclusionary rule as a method of enforcing that right. The states were allowed to come up with other safeguards to protect the constitutional rights of their citizens.


Silver Platter Doctrine

The incorporation of the prohibitions of the Fourth Amendment into the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not secure compliance by state law enforcement officers. In fact, because no real means of regulating unlawful state law enforcement behavior existed, state law enforcement agents cooperated with federal agents by providing them with illegally seized evidence, which was admissible in federal court because it was not obtained by federal agents. This practice became known as the “silver platter doctrine” because federal agents were being served up evidence much like food on a platter. The silver platter doctrine was denounced by the Court in Elkins v. United States (1960), which disallowed the admission of evidence obtained by state officers during a search that, if conducted by federal officers, would have violated a defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. The Court decided that it hardly mattered to victims of illegal searches whether their rights had been abridged by federal agents or by state officers, and that if the fruits of an illegal search conducted by state officers could no longer be admitted in federal trials, no incentive would exist for federal and state agents to cooperate in such abhorrent schemes. Partially because of state law enforcement officers’ disregard for the Fourth Amendment's proscriptions, in Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the Court reconsidered its stance on extending the exclusionary rule to state action.


Mapp v. Ohio

In 1957 Cleveland, Ohio, police officers went to Dollree Mapp's home with the goal of finding and questioning a bombing suspect. When the officers requested entry, Mapp refused to let them in without a search warrant. The officers returned a few hours later and forcibly entered Mapp's house. A struggle ensued; officers handcuffed Mapp and carried her upstairs, then searched her entire house, including the basement. They found obscene materials during their search, and she was charged and convicted of possessing them. During her trial, no warrant was introduced into evidence. The Ohio supreme court upheld Mapp's conviction, although it acknowledged that the methods used to obtain the evidence offended a sense of justice. In the Mapp majority opinion, the Court deplored the futility of protecting Fourth Amendment rights through remedies such as civil or criminal sanctions. It noted the failure of these remedies and the consequent constitutional abuses and suggested nothing could destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws. The Court declared that if the Fourteenth Amendment did not bar improperly seized evidence, the Constitution would consist of nothing more than empty words. In addition, more than half of the states had already adopted the exclusionary rule through either statutory or case law. Therefore, the Court ruled that the exclusionary rule applied to the states as well as the federal government. This avoided the incongruity between state and federal use of illegally seized evidence. Through Mapp, the Court altered state criminal trial procedures and investigatory procedures by requiring local officials to follow constitutional standards of search and seizure or suffer exclusion of evidence at trial.


Rationale for the Rule

Some legal experts theorize that the exclusionary rule is a natural outgrowth of the Constitution. The government cannot provide individual rights without protecting them, and the exclusionary rule provides this function. Therefore, the rule is an implicit part of the substantive guarantees of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, the Fifth Amendment right against selfincrimination, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process. The exclusionary rule also involves the concept of maintaining judicial integrity. The introduction into evidence of illegally gathered materials must be proscribed to maintain judicial integrity and deter police misconduct. The most common reason invoked for assertion of the exclusionary rule is that it effectively deters constitutional violations and that this deterrent effect is crucial to the vitality of the constitutional amendments. Beginning with United States v. Calandra (1974), the Court viewed the rule as primarily a judicial creation designed to deter police misconduct. Therefore, the Court felt free to balance the costs of excluding evidence against the benefits of the rule's effect as a deterrent and produced an ever-expanding list of judicially acknowledged exceptions to the exclusionary rule.


Exceptions to the Rule

After 1961, when the Court held that the states must apply the exclusionary rule to state investigatory and trial procedures, the rule came under increasing attack by those who argued that it exacts too great a price from society by allowing guilty people to either go free or to receive reduced sentences. The Court, reflecting societal division over the exclusionary rule, fashioned a number of exceptions to it. For example, in Calandra, the Court refused to allow a grand jury witness the privilege of invoking the exclusionary rule in refusing to answer questions that were based on illegally seized evidence, as any deterrent effect that might be achieved through application of the rule was too uncertain. For the same reason, the Court also held that illegally seized evidence may be admitted at trial in civil cases (United States v. Janis, 1976) and when it would “inevitably” have been discovered through other legal means (Nix v. Williams, 1984) as well as used to impeach a witness's credibility (United States v. Havens, 1978) and against third persons (United States v. Paynor, 1980). However, what most eroded the exclusionary rule was the good faith exception, first approved for criminal cases by the Court in United States v. Leon (1984). The good faith exception permitted the use of illegally acquired evidence if the officers who seized it did so in good faith. In Leon, the Court found no reason to apply the exclusionary rule to a situation in which an officer relied on a search warrant issued by a neutral magistrate that later was found not to be supported by probable cause. The Court reasoned that in such a case, the exclusion of evidence would have no deterrent effect on police officers and would exact too great a price from society. In Illinois v. Krull (1987), the Court ruled that the exclusionary rule did not bar the admissibility of evidence seized in good faith reliance on a statute, subsequently found to be unconstitutional, which authorized warrantless administrative searches. In 1995 the Court again extended the good faith exception when it held in Arizona v. Evans that the exclusionary rule does not require suppression of evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment because of inaccurate information based on a court employee's clerical errors. In Evans, a police officer made an arrest following a routine traffic stop when his patrol car computer erroneously indicated there was an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for Evans's arrest. When the issue of suppression reached the Court, it again applied the rationale of Leon. There was neither any evidence that court employees were inclined to ignore or subvert the Fourth Amendment nor any basis for believing that application of the rule would have an effect on the future behavior of court employees. Therefore, the Court decided that it would not serve the purposes of justice to apply the exclusionary rule in Evans.



Further Reading

  • Joel Samaha discusses the history of the exclusionary rule, rationales that justify it, and its social costs and deterrent effects in Criminal Procedure (6th ed., Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2005). For basic information regarding the exclusionary rule and its exceptions, see David Savage's The Supreme Court and Constitutional Rights (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004), Louis Fisher's Constitutional Rights: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (2d ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), Lee Epstein and Thomas G. Walker's Constitutional Law for a Changing America: Rights, Liberties, and Justice (5th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004), Craig Ducat and Harold Chases's Constitutional Interpretation: Rights of the Individual (8th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/West, 2004), and Joan Biskupic's The Supreme Court and Individual Rights (3d ed., Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1997). Timothy Lynch's journal article “In Defense of the Exclusionary Rule” (Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 23 [2000]) is an advanced study of the exclusionary rule that should be understandable to undergraduate college students.