Justices Expand Exclusionary Rule Exception


The Supreme Court on Wednesday expanded the “good-faith exception” to the exclusionary rule, declaring that a computer error resulting in unlawful arrest or search is not grounds for suppressing evidence.

The 7-2 ruling marks a major victory for law enforcement in an era when police increasingly rely on computers to track criminals.

The FBI’s National Computer Crime Information Center contains more than 23 million crime records that identify persons and vehicles sought by law enforcement agencies. Local police can often tap into this information through terminals in their squad cars.


Unfortunately, the information is not always accurate. A 1985 FBI study found that “at least 12,000 invalid or inaccurate reports on suspects wanted for arrest are transmitted each day to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.”

Under the exclusionary rule, evidence is excluded if it is obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Until Wednesday, it has been unclear whether the rule applies if a court clerk’s computer mistake causes an officer to arrest and search a person who is no longer wanted.

“The exclusionary rule was historically designed as a means of deterring police misconduct, not mistakes by court employees,” wrote Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist for the court. It makes no sense, he said, to let a guilty person go free simply because of “clerical errors of court employees.”

In dissent, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens cited “the potential for Orwellian mischief” if the government can arrest innocent persons with impunity based on bureaucratic carelessness.

The case before the court (Arizona vs. Evans, 93-1660) began in 1991 when Phoenix police stopped Isaac Evans and found an arrest warrant that had been quashed but remained in the police computer.

The state had appealed when the Arizona Supreme Court threw out drug evidence in Evans’ car.