Herring v. United States, No. 07-513, __ U.S. __ (Jan. 14, 2009)

ROBERTS, C.J.

On July 7, 2004, Investigator Mark Anderson learned that Bennie Dean Herring had driven to the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department to retrieve something from his impounded truck. Herring was no stranger to law enforcement, and Anderson asked the county’s warrant clerk, Sandy Pope, to check for any outstanding warrants for Herring’s arrest. When she found none, Anderson asked Pope to check with Sharon Morgan, her counterpart in neighboring Dale County. After checking Dale County’s computer database, Morgan replied that there was an active arrest warrant for Herring’s failure to appear on a felony charge. Pope relayed the information to Anderson and asked Morgan to fax over a copy of the warrant as confirmation. Anderson and a deputy followed Herring as he left the impound lot, pulled him over, and arrested him. A search incident to the arrest revealed methamphetamine in Herring’s pocket, and a pistol (which as a felon he could not possess) in his vehicle. App. 17-23.

There had, however, been a mistake about the warrant. The Dale County sheriff’s computer records are supposed to correspond to actual arrest warrants, which the office also maintains. But when Morgan went to the files to retrieve the actual warrant to fax to Pope, Morgan was unable to find it. She called a court clerk and learned that the warrant had been recalled five months earlier. Normally when a warrant is recalled the court clerk’s office or a judge’s chambers calls Morgan, who enters the information in the sheriff’s computer database and disposes of the physical copy. For whatever reason, the information about the recall of the warrant for Herring did not appear in the database. Morgan immediately called Pope to alert her to the mixup, and Pope contacted Anderson over a secure radio. This all unfolded in 10 to 15 minutes, but Herring had already been arrested and found with the gun and drugs, just a few hundred yards from the sheriff’s office. Id., at 26, 35-42, 54-55.

. . . .

The Eleventh Circuit found that the arresting officers in Coffee County “were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing or carelessness.” id., at 1218. The court assumed that whoever failed to update the Dale County sheriff’s records was also a law enforcement official, but noted that “the conduct in question [wa]s a negligent failure to act, not a deliberate or tactical choice to act.” Ibid. Because the error was merely negligent and attenuated from the arrest, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that the benefit of suppressing the evidence “would be marginal or nonexistent,” ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted), and the evidence was therefore admissible under the good-faith rule of United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984).

. . . .

The extent to which the exclusionary rule is justified by these deterrence principles varies with the culpability of the law enforcement conduct. As we said in Leon, “an assessment of the flagrancy of the police misconduct constitutes an important step in the calculus” of applying the exclusionary rule. 468 U.S., at 911. Similarly, in Krull we elaborated that “evidence should be suppressed ‘only if it can be said that the law enforcement officer had knowledge, or may properly be charged with knowledge, that the search was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. ‘” 480 U.S., at 348-349 (quoting United States v. Peltier, 422 U.S. 531, 542 (1975)).

. . . .

To trigger the exclusionary rule, police conduct must be sufficiently deliberate that exclusion can meaningfully deter it, and sufficiently culpable that such deterrence is worth the price paid by the justice system. As laid out in our cases, the exclusionary rule serves to deter deliberate, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct, or in some circumstances recurring or systemic negligence. The error in this case does not rise to that level.  [Footnote omitted.]

. . . .

We do not suggest that all recordkeeping errors by the police are immune from the exclusionary rule. In this case, however, the conduct at issue was not so objectively culpable as to require exclusion. In Leon we held that “the marginal or nonexistent benefits produced by suppressing evidence obtained in objectively reasonable reliance on a subsequently invalidated search warrant cannot justify the substantial costs of exclusion.” 468 U.S., at 922.   The same is true when evidence is obtained in objectively reasonable reliance on a subsequently recalled warrant.

If the police have been shown to be reckless in maintaining a warrant system, or to have knowingly made false entries to lay the groundwork for future false arrests, exclusion would certainly be justified under our cases should such misconduct cause a Fourth Amendment violation.  . . . Petitioner’s fears that our decision will cause police departments to deliberately keep their officers ignorant, Brief for Petitioner 37-39, are thus unfounded.

. . . .

Petitioner’s claim that police negligence automatically triggers suppression cannot be squared with the principles underlying the exclusionary rule, as they have been explained in our cases. In light of our repeated holdings that the deterrent effect of suppression must be substantial and outweigh any harm to the justice system, e.g., Leon, 468 U.S., at 909-910, we conclude that when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, any marginal deterrence does not “pay its way.” Id., at 907-908, n. 6 (internal quotation marks omitted). In such a case, the criminal should not “go free because the constable has blundered.” People v. Defore, 242 N. Y. 13, 21, 150 N. E. 585, 587 (1926) (opinion of the Court by Cardozo, J.).

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined.

GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, SOUTER, and BREYER, JJ., joined.

BREYER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER, J., joined.

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