The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the criminal conviction of an Alabama man even though the justices agreed the police search that produced incriminating evidence was illegal.
The high court's 7-2 ruling against Willie Gene Davis highlighted an unusual series of events. Between Davis' arrest and a federal appeals court ruling affirming his conviction, the Supreme Court put new limits on the ability of police to search a vehicle immediately after a suspect is arrested.
The question for the justices in this case was whether to invoke the exclusionary rule that generally requires evidence to be suppressed if it results from a violation of a suspect's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. In this case, the court said, the good-faith efforts of the officers overrode that concern.
Justice Samuel Alito explained in his majority opinion that the court upheld the conviction because the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter police misconduct.
Alito said that in a case where police followed the law as it existed when they conducted the search, "suppression would do nothing to deter police misconduct."
In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said it is unfair to Davis to acknowledge that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights, but leave him without a remedy. Breyer borrowed from Shakespeare in writing that the decision "'keeps the word of promise to our ear, but `breaks it to our hope." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Breyer's dissent.
Davis initially was arrested for giving police a false name after the car in which he was riding was pulled over during a routine traffic stop. The driver also was arrested on drunken driving charges. With Davis and the driver handcuffed and placed in the back of separate police cruisers, police searched the car and found a revolver in the pocket of Davis' jacket.
Davis already had a felony conviction on his record and was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
He challenged the conviction on the basis of the search. While the appeal was pending with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Arizona v. Gant.
The court said in that case that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they have arrested if the person is locked up in a patrol cruiser and poses no safety threat to officers. Warrants are not needed when officers' safety may be in question or they are looking for evidence of the crime for which they have just made an arrest.
The 11th Circuit upheld Davis' conviction anyway, and the high court followed suit Thursday.
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