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Sometimes It's Just Bad Luck (Search and Seizure)

The recent Sixth Circuit case of U.S. v. Godfrey, 10-4240 (6th Cir. 6-28-2011) is an interesting example of the "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule. Generally, evidence obtained from a warrantless search and seizure, not covered by a recognized exception to the warrant requirement, is inadmissible against an accused in a criminal case. The exclusionary rule exists to deter authorities from obtaining evidence by illegal means. But when authorities are acting in good faith in obtaining the evidence, excluding it has less value and the evidence may be admitted, under federal law.(Tennessee courts have not previously adopted the federal "good faith" exception. But the Tennessee State Legislature has just passed such an exception in the 2011 session.)

In the Godfrey case, Godfrey originally got the attention of a police officer at a four way stop sign, by motioning that the officer go first, even though Godfrey had the right of way. Excessive courtesy is not a crime, of course. But it can be unusual behavior. The police officer found it to be so in that particular neighborhood. He radioed another officer to run a Mobile Data Terminal ("MDT") check on the Godfrey's tag. Fortunately for Godfrey, he had no outstanding warrants. Unfortunately for Godfrey, the officer entering the plate number into the system mistyped the number and retrieved information for another individual, who happened to have an outstanding warrant. So Godfrey was soon thereafter stopped and detained. That may have been the end of the encounter, except for the fact that Godfrey's license was suspended. His problems compounded after a consensual search of his vehicle revealed a firearm with the serial number filed off. Godfrey pled guilty (felon in possession of a firearm) and reserved an appeal of the exclusion issue.

The district court found, and the Sixth Circuit agreed, that the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied and the stop was reasonable. Typing in the incorrect license plate information was accidental. It was reasonable for the officer to not have scrolled through the MDT to verify the correct information, given that he was driving in traffic and then engaging in detaining and securing a suspect. The interest in deterring police misconduct would not be served by applying the exclusionary rule under these circumstances.

For further information on search and seizure law and the application of the exclusionary rule in criminal cases, contact Hindman & Associates.

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