Is the Good Faith Exception Actually Good?
Updated: May 8
As many people already know, the Fourth Amendment limits the government’s ability to intrude upon, confiscate or detain, the physical person or the property of private citizens. This is the bedrock provision of criminal procedure because it governs the manner in which law enforcement officers and other government agents, investigate and arrest private citizens for crimes. Whether any physical evidence obtained by the police is admissible in evidence at trial against a criminal defendant depends on whether the police complied with the Fourth Amendment. To obtain a valid search warrant, two things need to be satisfied. First, the warrant must be issued by a neutral and detached magistrate. And second, the magistrate must find that “probable cause” existed “to believe that a crime has been committed and that the person or place named in the warrant is involved in the crime.”
The second prong is more difficult to satisfy because it requires that officers provide a sworn affidavit or oral testimony based on sufficiently reliable and specific information. And that the information provided rises to the level of probable cause. Until 1914, federal law enforcement officers had a prevalent tendency to obtain physical evidence in ways that violated private citizens’ rights under the Fourth Amendment. To resolve this issue, the Supreme Court introduced the “exclusionary rule,” holding that any physical evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment is inadmissible at trial against the criminal defendant whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The rule was created as an incentive for law enforcement officers to abide by the Constitution.
But what happens when law enforcement officers make the mistake of relying on a warrant that is later found to have been invalid? The good-faith doctrine states that in situations where evidence was obtained in reliance on a later deemed invalid warrant, it shall not be excluded from trial if police officers were acting in good-faith and had reason to believe their actions were legal. The reasoning behind the exception is that when police officers take reasonable steps to execute a search, suppressing the resulting evidence does not serve the Fourth Amendment’s intended purpose. But application of the exception nullifies any remedy afforded to victims of government misconduct by the exclusionary rule. While courts had originally adopted the exception to remedy innocent mistakes made by police officers that ultimately violated the particularity requirement of a warrant, courts have expanded this doctrine to protect police reliance on other forms of explicit authorization, old case law, and statutes.
In more recent cases, the Supreme Court has taken the view that the exclusionary rule is to serve as a deterrence for law enforcement not to violate citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights. The exclusionary rule promotes sound policymaking and an institutionalized view on deterrence, but with exceptions such as the good-faith doctrine, the exclusionary rule does not carry as much weight. Ignorance of the law is never a valid defense for the accused, but courts have extended this courtesy to law enforcement officers through the expansion of the good-faith doctrine and allowed them to hide behind immunity. It gives officers the benefit of the doubt with a high bar to prove otherwise.
A strong underlying concept of Fourth Amendment issues largely boils down to whether courts should protect police officers or alleged criminals. Although there is a government interest in protecting law enforcement from prosecution, creating so many exceptions to the Fourth Amendment strips it of its power and protections for its citizens. With the expansion of these exceptions, the exclusionary rule is losing its bite, leaving the Fourth Amendment vulnerable to law enforcement abuse. While the good-faith-doctrine does not go without its benefits, the reasoning behind the exception is not entirely valid. Because the exclusionary rule serves to deter police misconduct, courts reason that the good-faith doctrine should not trigger the suppression of evidence. Yet, it is difficult to draw the line between innocent mistakes and mistakes that seem innocent. Whether police officers had good or bad intentions should not matter; criminal defendants should not have to pay for law enforcement officers’ mistakes.
Further, Justices in the past have argued that, rather than only focusing on police misconduct, the exclusionary rule should impose costs on the state to encourage better training all of its personnel to avoid future violations. In Arizona v. Evans, the defendant Evans was pulled over by a police officer after driving the wrong way on a one-way street. After entering Evans’s name into the computer data terminal, the officer saw that there was a warrant for his arrest for failure to appear in court for traffic violations. Evans had resolved the traffic violations, but the court clerk had forgotten to erase the warrant from the computer system. The officer, however, did not know this and proceeded to arrest Evans. In the course of the arrest, the officer found marijuana on the defendant. Evans claimed his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated and moved to suppress the marijuana evidence. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of Evans, but the Supreme Court reversed, holding that law enforcement officers could not be held responsible for an unlawful search caused by a clerical error made by a court worker. The dissent noted that because police officers and court employees work together and both maintain the database, that there was no real distinction between them. Additionally, Justice Stevens observed that an arrest due to a computer error violates the dignity of a citizen and leaves them with no room for a civil remedy under Section 1983.
Rather than expanding the good-faith doctrine, Congress should focus on creating legislation that comports the balancing test that courts use when confronted with questions of exclusion. The government should adopt a more aggressive approach with developing and implementing detailed search and seizure guidelines for the police to follow, as well as focus on making police training programs that are devised according to the policy maker's understanding of fourth amendment decisions to shape police conduct along with other internal guidelines.