Police Ignorance and (Un)reasonable Fourth Amendment Exclusion
40 Pages Posted: 14 Oct 2020 Last revised: 22 Feb 2021
Date Written: September 7, 2020
The Fourth Amendment exclusion doctrine is as baffling as it is ubiquitous. Although courts rely on it every day to decide Fourth Amendment violations as well as defendants’ motions to suppress evidence obtained through these violations, virtually every aspect of the doctrine is a subject of fundamental disagreement and confusion. When defendants file motions to suppress unlawfully obtained evidence, the government often argues that, even if a violation of the Fourth Amendment has transpired, the remedy of evidence suppression is barred because the police acted in “good faith,” meaning the officer reasonably, albeit mistakenly, believed the search or seizure was lawful. Judges and commentators sharply disagree about whether and which police mistakes of law are, in fact, reasonable so as to deny the application of the exclusionary rule remedy. They also disagree on the nature and scope of the reasonableness standard, and its impact on the very existence of the exclusionary rule as a remedy against police misconduct.
This Article offers a new approach to the “good faith” exception doctrine based on a revisionist reading stemming from the Court’s recent decision in Heien v. North Carolina. There is widespread consensus that the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule doctrine determines the application of the remedy of evidence suppression to acknowledged violations of Fourth Amendment rights. But I argue that it is, in fact, better understood as an inquiry into the substance of Fourth Amendment rights and not into the application of the remedy. Since the Court held in Heien that a reasonable police mistake of law is relevant in the evaluation of conduct covered by the Fourth Amendment, there is no need for a “good faith” reasonableness exception to the exclusionary rule remedy, when that rule kicks in only after a violation of the Fourth Amendment. This approach renders the “good faith exception” to the exclusionary rule doctrine redundant. Instead of ruling that the exclusionary rule does or does not apply, courts in these cases can simply hold that an unreasonable search did or did not take place. This approach bears a significant practical payoff: courts will no longer be able to declare broadly that the police have violated the Fourth Amendment while in the same breath undercutting the value of remedying this violation based on two different questions on what constitutes one reasonable police officer.
Keywords: policing, police accountability, scotus, rights and remedies, reasonableness, searches and seizures, police ignorance, hein v. north carolina, evidence suppression, exclusionary rule, mistake of law, constitutional criminal procedure, constitutional law, good faith exception, fourth amendment
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