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Does a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule permit the admission of evidence obtained by a police officer who conducts a search in objectively reasonable reliance on precedent that is later overruled?
Last month, the Supreme Court held in Davis v. United States that "searches conducted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent are not subject to the exclusionary rule," and this week the Fourth Circuit applied that reasoning to a case that been lingering on the docket while the circuit waited for Supreme Court clarification.
In the case, Officer Cueto arrested defendant Laury Wilks for driving with a suspended license after stopping Wilks for an expired license plate. While waiting for Wilks to produce his license, registration, and proof of insurance, Cueto observed Wilks reach under his car seat multiple times.
After arresting, handcuffing, and placing Wilks the back of a police car, Cueto instructed a second officer, Officer O'Cain, to search under the front seat of Wilks' car. Upon locating a .380 caliber pistol under the seat, Cueto told O'Cain to search the trunk, where O'Cain found ammunition.
A federal grand jury later charged Wilks with possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon. Wilks argued that the evidence should be excluded; the government argued that the exclusionary rule should not apply because Officer O'Cain acted in good faith in relying on binding Fourth Circuit precedent. The district court sided with Wilks, and the Fourth Circuit reversed.
The government acknowledged that O'Cain's search of the car violated Wilks' Fourth Amendment rights, because, at the time of O'Cain's search, Wilks was secured in the back of Cueto's patrol car. However, the government argues that the remedy for such a violation, the exclusionary rule, should not apply because O'Cain, in conducting the search, acted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding Fourth Circuit precedent that was later overruled.
In Davis, the Supreme Court observed that exclusion of the evidence would not result in meaningful deterrence of police misconduct; the police officers did not deliberately, recklessly, or with gross negligence violate Davis' Fourth Amendment rights and the case did not involve "recurring or systemic negligence." The Supreme Court also noted that, to determine whether the exclusionary rule applies in a given case, a court must analyze whether any exceptions to the exclusionary rule apply, such as the good-faith exception, and whether the purpose of the exclusionary rule is "effectively advanced" in the case.
Unfortunately for Wilks, Davis was on point with his own challenge. Since the Fourth Court waited to hear the case until the Supreme Court ruled on the issue, Wilks missed the window of opportunity during which the evidence could have conceivably been excluded.