Bench Memos

Sotomayor as Trailblazer of Good-Faith Exception to Exclusionary Rule?

More misleading White House spin:  The backgrounder that the White House is circulating on Judge Sotomayor hypes “her sensible practicality in evaluating the actions of law enforcement officers”:

[I]n United States v. Santa, Judge Sotomayor ruled that when police search a suspect based on a mistaken belief that there is a valid arrest warrant out on him, evidence found during the search should not be suppressed. Ten years later, in Herring v. United States, the Supreme Court reached the same conclusion.

That’s a wild misreading of the relationship between the two cases. 

In United States v. Santa, 180 F.3d 20 (1999), Judge Sotomayor merely applied already-existing Supreme Court precedent—namely, United States v. Leon (1984), which recognized a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, and Arizona v. Evans (1995), which extended that good-faith exception to situations where police rely on police records that contain erroneous information resulting from clerical errors of court employees.  The specific question in Santa was whether the Evans exception applied to the facts of that case, and Judge Sotomayor and her panel colleagues ruled that it did:  the arresting officers’ reliance on the erroneous record was objectively reasonable, and court employees were responsible for the error.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in January 2009 in Herring v. United States concerned, as the Court stated it, an issue that “Evans left unresolved” and that Santa did not involve:  “‘whether the evidence should be suppressed if police personnel [rather than court employees] were responsible for the error’” in the records on which the police relied.  The Court divided 5-4 on this question, with President Obama’s favorite justices in dissent.  Nothing in Santa provides any reason to believe that a Justice Sotomayor wouldn’t be with the dissenters.

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