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Supreme Court Rules in Exclusionary Rule Case


March 1995

On Mar. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 7 to 2, reversed an Arizona Supreme Court ruling throwing out evidence that was seized by police as a result of a clerical error (Arizona v. Evans, No. 93-1660, 1995WL79195; 56 CrL 2173).

Isaac Evans was pulled over for going the wrong way on a one-way street in Jan. 1991. Evans claimed that his license had been suspended, and police ran a routine records check that showed the suspended license and an outstanding misdemeanor warrant. Police arrested Evans for the outstanding warrant. In the process of the arrest, Evans dropped a marijuana cigarette. Officers then searched Evans' car and found a bag of marijuana under the passenger seat.

In fact, the warrant had been quashed 17 days before the traffic stop in question, and Evans had no other outstanding warrants. The records checking computer system had not been updated to reflect the changes.

Both sides agreed that the arrest was a violation of Evans' rights under the Fourth Amendment. At trial, Evans moved to suppress the marijuana evidence, arguing that the exclusionary rule should apply to unconstitutional arrests based on errors made by clerical errors, not just cases with errors by police officers.

The trial court threw out the evidence, but the state Court of Appeals held that because the error was not made by the arresting officer but by a clerical worker the exclusionary rule would not apply. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that there should be no distinction between the police officer and the employees of the court for the purposes of the application of the exclusionary rule. The goal of the exclusionary rule, to prevent police misconduct, should also serve to improve the service of court clerical workers (866 P.2d 869 (1994); 54 CrL 1373).

Judge Rehnquist, writing on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court majority, said that an application of U.S. v. Leon (468 U.S. 897 (1984)), which allows good-faith exceptions to the exclusionary rule, upholds the admittance of the evidence in court. The officers, Rehnquist said, were unknowingly acting on the errors of court employees who have no stake in criminal proceedings. Any suppression of the evidence would not deter clerical workers from such errors in the future.

Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissented on the grounds that suppression of evidence based on clerical errors would have some impact on how many errors are made in the future. Such application of the exclusionary rule might serve to prevent unconstitutional arrests.

Ginsburg, joined by Stevens, wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court should not have heard the case at all. She objected to the application of the standard set in Michigan v. Long (463 U.S. 1032 (1983)), saying Long does not allow the states enough latitude in making laws. Long defined the jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court case over lower court decisions; unless the lower courts can demonstrate otherwise, if it is unclear whether the lower court was ruling on state or federal law, the Supreme Court will assume it to be ruling on federal law.

Ginsburg argued that states should be able to interpret constitutional matters in ways that best protect the rights and liberties of the people of that state. In the majority opinion, Rehnquist addressed Ginsburg's objections and wrote that the fact that federal and constitutional matters are subject to oversight by the U.S. Supreme Court does not prevent states from making laws and interpreting state constitutions to solve local problems.