Davis v. United States

In Davis v. United States (Docket No. 09–11328, Decided June 16, 2011), the United States Supreme Court held that searches conducted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding precedent are not subject to the exclusionary rule because suppression would do nothing to deter police misconduct and would come at a high cost to both the truth and the public safety.

In Davis, the question presented—whether new law should apply to the retroactive exclusion of evidence—arose as the result of a shift in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence on searches of automobiles incident to arrests of recent occupants. The Court, in United States v. Gant, adopted a new rule under which an automobile search incident to the occupant’s arrest is constitutional (1) if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle during the search, or (2) if the police have reason to believe that the vehicle contains “evidence relevant to the crime of arrest.”

The search at issue in Davis, which was conducted after defendants had been secured in separate patrol cars, took place a full two years before the Court announced its new rule in Gant. At trial, defense counsel acknowledged that the officers’ search fully complied with then-existing precedent, but nonetheless moved to suppress to preserve the issue for appeal. Gant was decided while appeal was pending, and defendant renewed his motion to suppress because under the new law, the vehicle search incident to Davis’s arrest “violated [his] Fourth Amendment rights.” The Eleventh Circuit refused suppression, concluding that “penalizing the [arresting] officer” for following binding appellate precedent would do nothing to deter Fourth Amendment violations.

On certiorari, the Supreme Court reiterated that while the exclusionary rule’s “sole purpose . . . is to deter future Fourth Amendment violations,” courts must adequately account for the “substantial social costs” generated by the rule—i.e., the heavy toll exclusion exacts on both the judicial system and society at large. Thus, for exclusion to be appropriate, the deterrence benefits of suppression must outweigh its heavy costs. The more “deliberate,” “reckless,” or “grossly negligent” the police conduct, the more exclusion is warranted, and vice versa. This rationale forms the basis of the “good faith” exception to the warrant requirement, which holds that the exclusionary rule does not apply when the police conduct a search in “objectively reasonable reliance” on warrants, statutes, and judicial precedent later invalidated.

Because in this context, all agreed that the officers’ conduct was in strict compliance with then-binding Circuit law and was not culpable in any way, the Court held that the “absence of police culpability dooms Davis’s claim.” That is, in the absence of deliberate, reckless, or grossly negligent police conduct, or some “recurring or systemic negligence” on the part of law enforcement, exclusion yields no meaningful deterrence, and does not justify the price paid by the justice system and society. Ultimately, the Court determined that the crux of the analysis in such circumstances is officer culpability or “good faith,” and not retroactive application of laws. Finding that the officers acted in reasonable reliance on binding precedent, the Court declined to retroactively apply the exclusionary rule as modified in Gant, and upheld Davis’ conviction.

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