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Monday, July 21, 2008

U.S. Is Alone in Rejecting All Evidence if Police Err

18exclude02_600 Bradley Harrison was driving a rented Dodge Durango from Vancouver to Toronto in the fall of 2004 with 77 pounds of cocaine in the trunk when a police officer pulled him over, found the drugs and arrested him. A year and a half later, an Ontario trial judge ruled that the officer’s conduct was a “brazen and flagrant” violation of Mr. Harrison’s rights. The officer’s explanation for stopping and searching Mr. Harrison — confusion about a license plate — was contrived and defied credibility, the judge said, and the search “was certainly not reasonable.” In the United States, that would have been good news for Mr. Harrison. Under the American legal system’s exclusionary rule, the evidence against Mr. Harrison would have been suppressed as the result of an unlawful search.

But both the Canadian trial judge and an appeals court refused to exclude the evidence. Mr. Harrison was sentenced to five years in prison.

“Without minimizing the seriousness of the police officer’s conduct or in any way condoning it,” the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled in Mr. Harrison’s case in February, “the exclusion of 77 pounds of cocaine, with a street value of several millions of dollars and the potential to cause serious grief and misery to many, would bring the administration of justice into greater disrepute than would its admission.” The case is now before the Canadian Supreme Court.

The United States is the only country to take the position that some police misconduct must automatically result in the suppression of physical evidence. The rule applies whether the misconduct is slight or serious, and without regard to the gravity of the crime or the power of the evidence.

“Foreign countries have flatly rejected our approach,” said Craig M. Bradley, an expert in comparative criminal law at Indiana University. “In every other country, it’s up to the trial judge to decide whether police misconduct has risen to the level of requiring the exclusion of evidence.”

But there are signs that some justices on the United States Supreme Court may be ready to reconsider the American version of the exclusionary rule. Writing for the majority two years ago, Justice Antonin Scalia said that at least some unconstitutional conduct ought not require “resort to the massive remedy of suppressing evidence of guilt.”

The court will soon have an opportunity to clarify matters. The justices will hear arguments on Oct. 7 about whether methamphetamines and a gun belonging to Bennie Dean Herring, of Brundidge, Ala., should be suppressed because the officers who conducted the search mistakenly believed he was subject to an outstanding arrest warrant as a result of careless record-keeping by another police department.

Elsewhere in the world, courts have rejected what the Ontario appeals court in Mr. Harrison’s case called “the automatic exclusionary rule familiar to American Bill of Rights jurisprudence.” [Mark Godsey]

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