Succinctly stated, the exclusionary rule stands for the principle of law that evidence seized in violation of the Constitution and attending Bill of Rights should be considered inadmissible in criminal proceedings. Although seemingly straightforward and well intentioned, the rule has met with some criticism—most notably the fact that it is a purely judge-made protection not specifically enumerated in the language of the Constitution. Initially conceived by the Supreme Court in the early 1900s, the exclusionary rule has since been applied, and in some instances retracted, to varying degrees over the intervening years. To better understand the rule’s origin and intent, as well as the manner in which it is applied to contemporary legal questions, a review of the relevant case law is required. Following this review, a balanced summary of its relative contributions to American jurisprudence are contrasted with the most common criticisms regarding its application.
Origins of the Exclusionary Rule
Prior to the twentieth century, state and federal courts gave little if any attention at all to the method by which incriminating evidence was appropriated and subsequently presented for consideration at trial. Rather than focusing on how a particular piece of evidence had been obtained, the primary focus was on its probative value—did the evidence in question aid the court in determining guilt or innocence? This ”don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to how evidence was obtained by law enforcement prevailed throughout the judiciary despite the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement and prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. This common law practice of giving greater consideration to probative value over the method of appropriation, at least with regard to federal proceedings, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Weeks v. U.S. (1914) in response to a residential search undertaken by officers in the absence of a warrant. Specifically, the majority opinion stated ”The tendency of those who excuse the criminal laws of the country to obtain conviction by means of unlawful seizures and enforced confessions . . . should find no sanction in the judgment of the courts which are charged at all times with the support of the Constitution and to which people of all conditions have a right to appeal for the maintenance of such fundamental rights” (Weeks at 392).
The decision in Weeks, however, only required the suppression of illegally acquired evidence in federal proceedings but did not apply to cases initiated against defendants at the state level. Consequently, the behavior of police at lower levels of government remained unchecked. It was during this period that state and local officers began the practice of turning illegally acquired evidence over to federal agents on a figurative ”silver platter.” Eventually, the Court closed this loophole in the case of Elkins v. United States (1960). The following year, the Supreme Court extended the rule’s prophylactic measures via the Fourteenth Amendment to state criminal proceedings in the case of Mapp v. Ohio (1961).
Confusion Surrounding the Exclusionary Rule
These early cases served as watershed decisions for future proceedings, which, in turn, began to closely scrutinize the manner by which police had obtained evidence presented at trial. Over the years, several additional cases supporting the rule’s principle that illegally obtained evidence should be suppressed at trial found their way to the Supreme Court’s docket and today stand as reinforcing case law used to regulate police behavior. As with any newly adopted principle of law, however, questions regarding the rule’s full protective scope began to emerge. Most notably, prosecutors and judges struggled with the issue of admissibility in instances where evidence had been obtained by all reasonable legal means only to find out later that some technical error had occurred, therefore, casting the entire case into question. In other words, lower courts needed to know if evidence was to be suppressed without exception in instances where a technical error or deficiency was found to have occurred.
Creation of the ”Good Faith” Exception
The most commonly cited decision that ultimately addressed this issue is that rendered in United States v. Leon (1984). In this particular case, officers secured a search warrant that had been previously reviewed by several deputy district attorneys and ultimately approved by a judge. The warrant was used to seize a large quantity of drugs as evidence. Unfortunately, the federal district court refused to admit the evidence even though it had been obtained under warrant on grounds that the affidavit on which the order was based did not sufficiently establish the element of probable cause. On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that the exclusionary rule did not require the suppression of evidence obtained by officers who reasonably relied on a warrant that had been issued by a neutral magistrate but was later found to be deficient. The practical importance of this decision was the creation of what is now commonly referred to as the ”good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule so that where officers are able to demonstrate that they were acting in such a manner, evidence that is found to be tainted by technical error remains admissible.
Criticisms of the Exclusionary Rule
Since the decision in Leon, the Supreme Court has at times expanded the good faith exception and at others has upheld the rule’s prophylactic intent. Consequently, this area of the law is extremely complex. Because of this, law enforcement officials must remain constantly abreast of changes to the rule’s relative status through participation in legal update training, generally at the agency level. Oftentimes, however, officers are reluctant consumers of such information based on the perception that the rule has the practical consequence of making their jobs more difficult.
Shortly after its initial application to federal proceedings, and most certainly upon its extension to state proceedings, the rule came under heavy criticism from crime control advocates for figuratively ”handcuffing” the police and letting obviously guilty criminals go free on minor technicalities ”because the constable has blundered” (People v. Defore, 242 N.Y. 13 at 21, 1926). This contention, combined with the Supreme Court’s activism in other areas of criminal procedure, gave rise to the assertion that judges had gone too far in protecting the rights of criminals. Critics have also asserted over the years that the rule unnecessarily forces the police to work harder to obtain evidence and confessions while distracting their energies and attention from other matters—in essence claiming that the rule inadvertently impedes efficiency and effectiveness.
Whether or not this particular criticism holds true, other unintended consequences have surfaced. For example, the rule was clearly intended to deter police misconduct. Arguably, however, strict application of the rule could motivate the police to cut certain corners in the interest of obtaining evidence and convictions. Simply stated, the rule may have the latent effect of promoting questionable police practices rather than preventing them. Finally, it is important to note that the protective intent of the exclusionary rule is only triggered when the police and prosecutors plan to submit evidence at trial. However, in instances where police and prosecutors do not intend to bring a case against the defendant, no foul has occurred. This type of situation potentially leaves adversely affected individuals without remedy but for the ability to seek redress through civil action for deprivation of rights under Title 42, U.S.C. Section 1983.
In conclusion, the exclusionary rule is ideally intended to deter law enforcement and other government agents from obtaining evidence by means that contradict protections afforded by the Bill of Rights. Application of the rule has been extended over the years to not only physical evidence under the Fourth Amendment, but to improperly obtained confessions and admission under the Fifth Amendment as well. In limited instances, especially those where the police are acting in ”good faith,” exceptions have been created. Despite this acknowledgment by courts that the police do sometimes make honest mistakes, they should not generally assume that an exception will be granted, particularly where an important case is at stake.
Arguably, the rule has improved police professionalism by making police more conscientious abut their work and deterring them from cutting corners. On the other hand, the rule’s prophylactic intent does not always sit well with officers, conservatives, and crime control advocates who see it as a mechanism that sometimes lets obviously guilty people go free. Whichever perspective one subscribes to— the due process rights of defendants or the crime control rights of the public— the rule has become such an integral component of American jurisprudence that it will most assuredly endure into the indefinite future.