Why Courts Reject Illegally Obtained Evidence


Ever wondered why evidence is sometimes excluded during criminal trials?

In Weeks v. United States (1914), the U.S. Supreme Court announced a far-reaching doctrine known as the "exclusionary rule," which generally bars the use in court of illegally obtained evidence.

Weeks arose after federal officials kicked down a criminal suspect's door, scoured his home without a search warrant, and discovered various incriminating documents, which were later used against him at his federal trial. "If letters and private documents can thus be seized and held and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense," the Court ruled, "the protection of the Fourth Amendment declaring his right to be secure against such [unreasonable] searches and seizures is of no value."

In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the Court extended the rule to criminal trials at the state level. "Presently, a federal prosecutor may make no use of evidence illegally seized," the justices observed, "but a State's attorney across the street may, although he supposedly is operating under the enforceable prohibitions of the same" Constitution.

Today the exclusionary rule stands as a centerpiece of Fourth Amendment law and as a treasured doctrine among civil libertarians. Yet it has its critics—among them the respected Yale University law professor Akhil Reed Amar, who argues that it should be scrapped because it "draws no strength from the deeply rooted American ideal of protecting innocent Americans from erroneous convictions." Instead, as he wrote in 2012, "the rule perversely benefits the guilty…precisely because reliable evidence of their guilt had surfaced."

He has a point—but questions of guilt and innocence are not always as simple as Amar would have us believe.

Consider Mapp v. Ohio: In 1957, Cleveland police were hunting for a bombing suspect and wanted to search the home of Dollree Mapp. She refused to let them inside without a warrant.

Officers eventually forced the door and proceeded to ransack her home. They rifled through her dresser, her photo album, and her personal papers. Needless to say, they failed to turn up any bombing suspects squeezed inside a dresser drawer. But they did discover some pornographic materials, which were illegal at the time under state law. She was charged and later convicted, but the Supreme Court overturned the finding.

Mapp was guilty of possessing pornography. But she was entirely innocent of harboring (or being) a bomber, the ostensible reason the police invaded her home. So perhaps the exclusionary rule did protect an innocent American from government malfeasance after all.

NEXT: Brickbat: So Immature

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  1. “If letters and private documents can thus be seized and held and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense,” the Court ruled, “the protection of the Fourth Amendment declaring his right to be secure against such [unreasonable] searches and seizures is of no value.”

    Actually that is only the case if court/justice system decides they will not prosecute the police or whomever for violating one’s civil rights.
    But by the statement above by the court, the implies that this will not be done – hence the recourse is to prohibit actual evidence from entering a trial of someone’s wrong .

    This is bad logic IMHO. Evidence is evidence and to ignore it simply because another person is not subject for crimes he/she committed is absurd.
    In fact there is sufficient reasoning in my opinion to say the police should be subject to worse punishment/restitution than an ordinary citizen.

    1. A perk of law enforcement is that you’re not held responsible for your criminal actions.

      1. Any regular person who entered a dwelling without permission, stole property, held someone without permission, and lied to a court would have been arrested for burglary, theft, false imprisonment, and perjury.

        1. Don’t forget destruction of property. Cops don’t just “enter a dwelling without permission.” They smash windows with flash-bangs and knock down doors with a battering ram, destroying the door, lock, and frame.

          1. 1. Minimum sentence of one year for illegal search and seizure.
            2. Evidence obtained through illegal search and seizure can only be introduced into trial for the defendant AFTER the government agent who obtained the evidence has been sentenced and incarcerated.
            3. The convicted agent must testify in orange prison garb and chains.

            1. It would certainly be entertaining…..

    2. I agree that evidence illegally seized should be excluded, but I also think that as this is such wee-established law at this point there should be no qualified immunity for those who illegally seized the evidence.

      Of course, I also think qualified immunity itself is completely bogus.

      1. *well-established

    3. The evidence is evidence only because the cop swears “This is what I found when I conducted the search.” But if the cop made an unconstitutional search, he broke his oath to uphold the Constitution, and his “This what I found” is the word of a perjurer.

    4. Same here. Evidence is evidence, and crime is crime. If the police acted illegally, punish them for that. Breaking and entering at the least, but also acting under color of law, extortion, whatever else fits. In addition, self-defense comes into play; as the police were acting illegally, they were no longer police but just ordinary burglars, and should the occupant shoot them in self-defense, they have no recourse. Any other police who fire back or in any other way support their comrade are as guilty of murder as any other common criminal.

  2. This is a pretty thin treatment of “Mapp”. Damon must have a headache today. “Mapp” is famous, not only for the breadth of the decision but the fact that the Court granted relief that had not been “prayed” for, deliberately choosing to “make” law, law that isn’t actually found in the Constitution. Damon is all for aggressive decision-making by the Court, but he always wants to believe that the “answer” is right there in the Constitution. However, it isn’t. The real point of Mapp, and the earlier “feds only” decision, is that cops won’t bother with search warrants if they can get evidence that will be accepted in court without getting a warrant. Why waste time? And the only effective deterrent is to disallow the evidence. Law and order types from the Reagan era, like Rehnquist and Scalia, always liked to claim that innocent folks harassed by the cops could always sue to recover damages. Yeah, that’ll work. The argument was so shitty that they never really tried to put it into effect.

  3. Does this not make it easier for criminals to get away with their crimes?

    1. Which criminals are you referring to, the ones with badges or without?

  4. I have a much more stringent standard for what search warrants should be, than the way they are effectuated in modern jurisprudence.
    This whole doctrine of “in plain sight” pursuant to an existing warrant search, allowing evidence to be admissible, is something I believe violates the exclusionary principle.
    Basically, if a cop is searching pursuant to a particularized valid search warrant, and finds evidence of a crime unrelated to the search warrant, then by the “in plain sight” doctrine that evidence can be used for a new criminal charge.

    Another one is, if the search warrant was NOT valid, but the cops believed it to be valid, then the evidence is still admissible.

    Another one is, the change in the premise of who is protected by the exclusionary principle. It used to be the enforcement mechanism to stop police from violating a person’s 4th Am rights, now it is considered just an administrative deterrent for future pad police behavior. The difference is significant. Where one directly is meant to protect an individual, and any violation of that protection leads to an exclusion, the other is such that considerations of whether the police knew what they were doing was wrong becomes the standard, as the theory goes that such a situation would not deter future police violations.

    There are more, but the gutting of the 4th Am is in full force.

  5. A useful modification to the exclusionary rule would be to allow illegally-obtained evidence to be admitted on the condition that the persons who obtained the evidence illegally were first convicted and appropriately sentenced for their criminal activity.

    This would, in fact, be more effective than the unmodified exclusionary rule at protecting Fourth Amendment rights, since cops would be at greater personal risk. Right now, if a cop illegally obtains evidence, he might, what, get yelled at by his boss for pissing off the prosecutor? Under this modified system, though, if a cop manages to uncover evidence of a serious crime by illegal means, the prosecutor has a direct incentive to put the cop behind bars.

    1. Great minds think alike. Our minds also think alike.

  6. I could see making a strictly limited exception for evidence closely related to the subject being searched for in cases where there is an element of time pressure. Say, a search for a kidnap victim, or a search for evidence of where a bomb has been placed.

    Otherwise, there are simply too goddamned many ‘crimes’ the laws against which are tolerable because of how hard it would be to legally obtain evidence. Like that stupid law against pornography.

  7. I’d be okay getting rid of the exclusionary rule but only if we first get rid of qualified immunity and start putting these abusive cops and prosecutors in jail.

    Mapp maybe deserved a little jail time for the pornography but the officers who broke down her door and blatantly violated civil liberties deserved some major jail time.

  8. Mueller?

  9. The account of Amar on exclusion is thin. He doesn’t say “trust the cops to only go after the guilty”. Rather, the correct reading of the Constitution is, if you are improperly harmed by government officials, sue for a civil remedy: officials are personally liable for any improper harm. But the *public* should not be harmed by an accused excluding clear evidence of guilt: remedies should be against erroneous officials, not against victims or the wider public. So, in Mapp, for Amar the possible scenario would be an action for damages to property or person caused during a warrant-less, wrong search for a bomb. But Mapp would not have been able to exclude real evidence of another crime.

    Of course, if the officials take the precaution of obtaining a proper, honest warrant, they’re Constitutionally protected from civil cases, even if the grounds for the warrant later turn out to be wrong.

    However, the weakness in Amar’s argument is it that it ignores the power disparity between the individual and the government and its agents. Individual agents are not likely to be much discouraged by a potential civil liability when they have the full might of their uniform and of their employer (never mind their Union….) behind them, and most complainants will have limited resources to put up a fight. It’s that power disparity that has led the SC to produce the exclusionary rule, even if it really is not in the Constitution itself.

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