Herring v. United States: Greater Leeway for Police in Searches

The Fourth AmendmentThe Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides protections for citizens against unreasonable searches by government officials. In a number of rulings over the years, including Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the U.S. Supreme Court has articulated the important concept that evidence obtained in the course of an illegal search should be excluded, or barred, from use during a criminal trial.

Herring v. United StatesHowever, the Supreme Court in a ruling in 2009 limited the scope of this exclusionary rule. In Herring v. United States, the Court stated that evidence obtained by law enforcement in the course of some illegal searches may nevertheless be used by prosecutors during trial.

The case concerned Bennie Herring, who was arrested in Coffee County, Alabama, after police in that county were informed by officials from Dale County, Alabama, that there was an outstanding warrant for Herring's arrest. As part of that arrest, police discovered drugs and a weapon, resulting in criminal charges for both those violations.

The problem was that Dale County officials had erred and no warrant had actually existed for Herring's arrest. And because no warrant had existed, Herring should never have been arrested and the search should not have taken place. At the trial for the drugs and weapon charges, Herring's lawyers filed a motion to exclude or suppress the evidence because it had been obtained as part of a improper search.

The Supreme Court ruled, however, that charges could be still be brought against Herring even though the arrest and search should not have taken place. They stated that because police in Coffee County had acted in good faith - they had not intentionally conducted an illegal search - the evidence could be used in trial.

Some Exclusions RemainThe Court identified a small number of instances that would still exclude evidence obtained as part of an illegal search. One type involves cases that require a significant deterrent against misconduct by police. Another involves a reckless and intentional violation by law enforcement of the U.S. Constitution's protections against unreasonable search and seizure. A final group involves systematic violations of search and seizure protections.

Free and Confidential ConsultationThis decision by the Supreme Court expands law enforcement's power to conduct searches as part of criminal investigations, and makes it more difficult to exclude illegally obtained evidence from trial. If you have questions about a search that you or someone you know was subjected to, contact me at (916) 442-1200 for a free and confidential consultation.