Divided Supreme Court Sides With Police; Weakens 'Exclusionary Rule'

Friday, June 16, 2006

Yesterday the Supreme Court announced their decision in Hudson v. Michigan, a high-profile case that was reargued after the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor to presumably break a 4-4 tie without her vote. New Justice Samuel Alito joined the conservatives in a 5-4 ruling to side with law enforcement officers who improperly entered the home of Booker Hudson by not appropriately "announcing their presence" even though they had a search warrant to enter the premises.

Traditionally, police knock on the door and wait approximately 15-20 seconds before serving a warrant on a suspect. In this case police did not knock and waited between three and five seconds before entering Hudson's home - not giving Hudson enough time to hide (or use) his loaded gun and cocaine rocks.

The opinion of the court, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, does not give police a free pass to conduct business as they wish or shield them from disciplinary action or civil suits, but instead says that evidence found by police officers who enter a home to execute a search warrant without first following the requirement to "knock and announce" can be used at trial.

Before yesterday's ruling, evidence inappropriately collected could be excluded by a trial judge as part of the "exclusionary rule" established in the 1961 landmark case Mapp v. Ohio.

In his opinion joined by new Chief Justice John Roberts, new Justice Samuel Alito, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony M. Kennedy, Scalia argued that the evidence was going to be found anyway, which is the point of serving a warrant in the first place. "The cost of entering this lottery would be small, but the jackpot enormous: suppression of all evidence, amounting in many cases to a get-out-of-jail-free card."

Moderate-to-conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joined in most of the ruling but came short of wanting to end the knock requirement. "It bears repeating that it is a serious matter if law enforcement officers violate the sanctity of the home by ignoring the requisites of lawful entry," he said. He also noted that legislatures can intervene if police officers do not "act competently and lawfully."

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the dissenters, said the ruling "weakens, perhaps destroys, much of the practical value of the Constitution's knock-and-announce protection." He said the majority's reasoning boiled down to: "The requirement is fine, indeed, a serious matter, just don't enforce it." He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I support the majority's opinion because it rightfully weakens the "exclusionary rule" that at one point in history may have been necessary to combat corrupt police who subjected innocent people to a sub-par judicial system.

In today's time the "exclusionary rule" does more to help the bad guys than anything else because crucial evidence needed to convict might not make it to trial if not collected exactly by the books. In the case of Booker Hudson, had the liberal justices got their way and the "exclusionary rule" applied, the seized weapon (which was loaded) and rocks of cocaine would not have been admissible, and Hudson would have likely been set free had there not been other charges pending.

Scalia argued that the evidence was "going to be found anyway," but that's simply the best-case scenario. Had the cops waited an additional 30 seconds as the liberal justices would have preferred, the evidence could have easily been flushed down the toilet and the suspect could have used the extra time to reach his gun and assault the serving officers.

Alas, in the debate over civil rights and police procedure, officer safety is often downplayed, as it has been in this case. To be sure, we must not forget that all persons are innocent until proven guilty, but that's for the courts to decide. If police find a dead body, it should be admitted into evidence whether it was found legitimately or not.

Many court watchers see Hudson v. Michigan as a sign of a Supreme Court that has become more conservative with the addition of two new justices last term. When it was first argued before she retired, Justice O'Connor sounded ready to side with the defendant. Thankfully, it is now Alito who matters.