Is A Conviction Constitutional If It's Based On Evidence From An Unconstitutional Search?

from the buttle-or-tuttle? dept

In a case where the legal implications should thrill any fans of Terry Gilliam's movie classic Brazil, the Supreme Court is set to examine if it's constitutional to convict someone, based on evidence that was only collected due to bad data in a government database. There's no question that a search of someone due to bad data in a database is unconstitutional, but the question is whether or not what's found in that search can then be used to charge someone. In this case, a bad (obsolete) database entry in a county database resulted in the search of an individual's car, where drugs and a firearm were found. This resulted in a conviction and jail time, but the search itself wasn't constitutional, because the data was incorrect. The appeals court let the conviction stand, oddly arguing that throwing out the conviction wouldn't put much pressure on governments to keep their data clean. The court also argues that anyone convicted as a result of such bad data, should simply file a separate, civil, lawsuit against the government. Of course, it seems like the bigger issue should simply be on the constitutionality of using any unconstitutionally obtained evidence in a lawsuit.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Bob, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 5:45pm

    No sympathy

    This is a case where you have a known bad guy and the cops know he is a bad guy.
    A felon with meth and a revolver. Sorry I have very little sympathy for the guy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    pswaim, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 5:46pm


    If you have illegal drugs and firearms in your car you are guilty right? The bad data does not excuse your guilt does it? Is the opbjective of the constitution to let you get a way with a crime? Illegal search arguments have become the get out jail free card for the guilty, when it's intent was to prevent the persecution of the innocent. Somewhere we lost sight of justice and citzen resposibility. The test of constitutional or unconstitutional should be the exception when innocence of the accused is determined.The term illegal search implies that someone intentionally and mulishly used the bad data. If you are guilty, then you are guilty.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    simon, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 5:48pm

    bad accident happens, bad guy unlucky

    what can i say more...

    they got to him by accident, but the drugs and weapon i guess not... he knew the risk of having them on ... so I guess...

    the rest is un-impotant, 1 bad guy off the streets a little..

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    David, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 5:56pm

    Re: No sympathy

    It has nothing to do with your sympathy or not. The question is whether it is constitutional. I can see, for instance, cops busting into homes and looking around. Eventually, they'll find something illegal, and arrest everyone concerned. So they had to bust through the whole neighborhood, they caught some bad guys, right? And the other people can always sue in civil court, right?

    What keeps the police from doing this? Maybe the threat that the case will get thrown out if they do.

    Constitutional cases are almost always on the fringe. It doesn't matter if this guy had meth and a revolver, or a joint and a kitchen knife. Hell, maybe it was Rush Limbaugh with Oxycontin and an AK-47.

    I think the cops always need to dot their i's and cross their t's. If they don't and bad guys get away, it's their own damn fault.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Jeff, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 6:12pm

    Who and what is irrelevant

    This is a supreme court case therefore, the individual involved and what he was or wasn't doing isn't the point.

    The question being asked is can the government benefit by committing unconstitutional (illegal) acts? If the answer is yes then no citizen is safe from illegal government acts. As a citizen, I much prefer the occasional "bad guy" walking the streets than an entire government (feds, state and local)that can commit illegal acts with impunity.

    I would suggest that the justice's serving on the appeals court should be investigated for possible impeachment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 6:28pm

    Re: Who and what is irrelevant

    Before chastizing the judges on the 11th Circuit it is helpful to read their opinion:

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    ronny, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 6:29pm


    oh, it's ok for the cops to break the law,but noone else where do you draw the line, give em an inch and they'll take 927 miles, and we're all criminals in they're eyes, so "it's ok cuz he was a bad guy" don't cut it, go practice yer goosestep "hiemlich"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    DCX2, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 6:51pm


    We must provide incentives for law enforcement to behave. If we allow unconstitutional searches to merit convictions, police will have little incentive to observe Constitutional limits.

    This means some bad guys get let go, but this is the price you pay to live in a free society.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 6:57pm

    its all fun and games til YOU get caught-up in the same type of scenario ie: bad data, illegal search, possible conviction etc....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 6:57pm

    Trust the cops?

    Besides the cops probably planted the drugs and gun as SOP.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Hugh Mann, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 7:01pm

    Re: Re: No sympathy

    Rather than throwing out such evidence, I think it would be better to go ahead and use the evidence to convict the actual criminal, BUT also make the penalty for unconstitutional behavior whatever the penalty for the defendant's crime is. So, if you use an illegal search to get enough (real) evidence to get a killer sent to jail (or executed), the officer(s) who conducted the illegal search should be subject to the same sentence as the convicted murderer.

    That way you reduce the incentive for illegal searches, but you don't throw the baby out with the bath water by letting an obviously guilty person go free.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 7:09pm

    No fun wen da rabbits gots da gunz..

    I vote for #9!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Greevar, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 7:23pm

    Re: Guilty?

    We have the right to be protected from illegal search and seizure. They searched his car with a warrant obtained under false pretenses which makes the search illegal. Therefore the evidence they found is inadmissible. The fact that he had a gun and drugs is irrelevant. I can't believe they're arguing this at all. It's the job of the courts to make sure our rights are upheld and this is just a gross dereliction of their duties.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 7:25pm

    Re: No sympathy

    If we don't follow the rule of law then what are we?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    The Other Bob, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 7:29pm

    I have to go with....

    Being a ex-Police Officer, let me first say, that it isn't SOP to plant meth or guns on people. Come on now, the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's...oh heck nevermind...the real point is this, the govt., should never benefit from any type of "bad" or illegal issues. A first year law student should be able to make the arguement of the poisonous tree (If you don't know the arguement, look it up, will do you good to learn something today).

    Anyway, the Supreme Court's ruling in this case might have, depending on how they word things, some very important policy changes all around the country.

    It's my hope though that they do rule this to be illegal and the person would be released immediately.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Greevar, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 7:47pm

    Re: Re: Who and what is irrelevant

    The "good faith" act is irrelevant. Committing theft in "good faith" is still theft. I'm not saying that the officers acted improperly, but that doesn't excuse the fact that the evidence they found resulted from a search based on a nonexistent warrant. This sets a precedent that allows courts to bypass the 4th amendment. Nothing should be able to bypass our constitutional rights. That's why we have them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    NullOp, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 8:11pm

    If the bad evidence is the ONLY evidence then ya gotta throw the case out. A legal decision must be based on legal documentation/evidence.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Jake, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 8:14pm

    The legal term for this is 'fruit of the poison tree', and whilst I do have mixed feelings about this case, a ruling saying said search is constitutional will have some unfortunate consequences; some overzealous cop could then use sloppy record-keeping as an excuse to circumvent the law on search and seizure, and it might even work.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Peter, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 9:49pm

    Re: Guilty?

    Sooo - according to you the Police should be able to just bust in people's doors, search their houses illegally - and then prosecute the people that have illegal stuff... cause, if they've got it, then they broke the law - right? That's EXACTLY the case the constitution was designed to prevent. That's exactly what the British were doing at the time it was written. That's exactly what our government will do if protections like this aren't upheld. Why go to all the trouble of having a warrant, etc - if just looking for the info - while unconstitutional, has not repercussions to your investigation?

    You need to think outside this case. The constitution doesn't protect individuals. It protects societies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Ron, Oct 6th, 2008 @ 10:51pm

    I hope the guy gets released. What's next get your house searched because it was in a government database and get charged with copyright violations because your kids playing a back-up Pooh bear dvd and you can't find the original? Followed by weapons charge because your steak knife is long and sharp. How about an IRS audit and because of a "data error" you're screwed because YOU have to prove it was their error and not yours. How about a screw up with a DCFS database? Where dose it end?

    I have a record, from a long time ago, but one none the less. I went a long time with out a job because of it. While I put my life back together I still can't get a job better than part-time paying more than 50 cents above minimum wage. Even getting that took my mom calling in a favor. There are no job programs for felons who aren't bad enough to go to prison and only put on court supervision, yet a felony makes it so you can't get cash assistance and if you file for unemployment it will be denied and the appeal will be long and hard fought. Shit dose happen and just the accusation could cause one to get fired. Were it me the worst they would find would be a burned CD and a box cutter from work, but the rumor in a small town over getting pulled over and your property searched would be bad enough to cause trouble. Then what... my family would loose their home because of a "screw up"? The thing that is glossed over was that they were looking for a reason to pull him over because of his record if they found nothing what would have been next pulling him over and breaking a tail light as justification?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Paul Brinker, Oct 7th, 2008 @ 1:35am

    Its Simple

    First its the reason we have "The Fruit of the Poisoned Tree"

    Otherwise it would be legal to bust a guys house because "the computer said so" look for anything (or plant it) and toss the person in jail.

    After reading the judge notes on the case I come to the exact other conclusion: Major harm is caused if the rule is not used because this becomes a loop hole in the system, a single case becomes justification later when it happens next time of why its legal for officers to search on bad information.

    Of course I would rather see several guilty men go free then a free man go to jail.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    simon, Oct 7th, 2008 @ 2:06am

    bad intel

    if police search would had been conducted on bad intel from a human source and not from a computer, would that be ok, then ?

    this things happens all the times, most of the times police go out without finding nothing, and there are times they do...

    i don't thing that this was police abuse, but just in case, if a warrant was issued for a search based on bad intel... human or machine, should be all the same (easier to correct the machine one), but the fact that the search did discovered illegal drugs and weapon, makes the case somehow stand...

    anyway, how can a police officer know if it has bad intel or not until it gets checked (especial if it comes from a compute or a "trust" source)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    rwahrens (profile), Oct 7th, 2008 @ 5:06am

    another exception

    Another exception is "inevitable discovery". If it can be shown that your investigation would have inevitably uncovered the information or illegal material by other means than the illegal search, the evidence can be retained.

    But that is pretty tough to show. First, you have to have an ongoing investigation that fairly covers the subject based upon the likelihood of illegal activity. You can't just start investigating just because the guy has a record or because he looks shady...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    hegemon13, Oct 7th, 2008 @ 6:31am

    Re: Re: No sympathy

    The officers DID dot their is and cross their ts. The data they received back was obsolete, but they had no way of knowing it.

    As far as I am concerned, the officers did their due diligence. Mistakes happen, and I like the idea that the guy should sue the city/county/state for damages in a civil suit. In that, I think he should win. But, he is clearly guilty, and the bad data does not change the fact that he was a felon carrying drugs and a gun.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    hegemon13, Oct 7th, 2008 @ 6:33am

    Re: Re: Re: No sympathy

    Uh, that's pretty ridiculous. Punish the officers, even take away their right to be police officers, but punishing them the same as the criminal is pretty damn stupid.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    just an observor, Oct 7th, 2008 @ 9:50am

    Re: Re: Re: No sympathy

    Yes, the police did their due diligence, but they are agents of the government, who did NOT do their due diligence and therefore, should not be able to benefit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    oregonnerd, Oct 7th, 2008 @ 11:19am

    constitutional conviction

    Isn't it sort of like selling something you don't have? Why do you expect for there to be rights upheld? The poor don't have rights. It was narrowly won that those who didn't own property would even be citizens.
    ((I was referring to the Bill of Rights.))

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    Mathew, Oct 7th, 2008 @ 1:05pm

    Bad Evidence is Still Bad Evidence

    A warrant based on bad non-computer information would have gotten this evidence thrown out. In this country you have the right not to have the police search your Person or Property without cause, so in this case they had no cause. The idea that a government cannot be held accountable for an outdated or deficient computer program is ridiculous. They are held accountable for other equipment that does not perform to standards, even when it is uncontrollable. In this case it is very controllable, just spend the money to have something new built. It is the responsibility of government to hold themselves to a higher standard of adhering to laws, policies, and the protection of our personal civil rights. If a government agency cannot hold itself accountable for a computer mistake, how can they hold Companies and Corporation accountable for the same. Major department store loses Credit Card info because of a computer issue, guess that shouldn’t be their fault as well. Another company miss-reports information to stock holders, no problem Enron, Tyco, or whoever you are; you’re not responsible for what that box on your desk does. Bottom line, the government agency is responsible for not maintaining, and or correctly operating their computer system, and any evidence stemming from that mistake is fruit from the poisonous tree. A few episodes of Law and Order can even tell you that one.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. identicon
    Grae, Oct 7th, 2008 @ 3:26pm

    Come ON, people!

    I can't believe the number of people who are shrugging and saying "well, it's a bad guy off the street".

    Are all of you completely out of your minds? I bet you also use the "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about" mantra in response to the ridiculous invasion of privacy that goes on every day at security checkpoints across the country.

    Do you want to live in a fascist nation? Refusing to uphold the principles of privacy and freedom because the persecuted are people that you don't like, don't care about, or hate (criminals or otherwise) is the road that Germany took when the Nazis were rising to power (yes, I just Godwin'd this discussion, deal with it.) If the German people had stood up to the Nazis and said "I may not like the group of people you're persecuting but I won't stand to see others' rights trampled" then history may have turned out very different.

    Also the judge's opinion on the ruling is complete nonsense. He claims that forcing Coffee County (who got the invalid arrest warrant) to dismiss the case wouldn't punish Dale County (who sent the bad warrant) for their bad record keeping. The truth is, it would punish Dale County massively, straining their relationships with neighboring counties, tainting the reliability of their records, and the perception of the public on their elected officials.

    Think about it. If you're forced to drop a case because your neighboring county police can't keep their data in order and sent you bad information, are you going to continue to rely on them or give them priority when they send requests for information to you?

    If you become a county police dept that's known for having bad records, are your prosecutors going to be happy that you're undermining the credibility of the cases they are trying to build?

    If you're a citizen in a county where the police are known to keep bad records, are you going to have faith that the officials you voted for the run the county are doing their jobs?

    I'm honestly baffled at how the judge can't see the repercussions that Dale County would experience if he threw out an arrest the Coffee County made based on Dale County's bad records.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. identicon
    tex montgomery, Oct 21st, 2008 @ 1:43pm

    Re: jake

    Listen man, if you think that sloppy record keeping is a perjorative statement then you should see the paperwork I have from the Camden Police Department(NJ). You have misspelled sentences, grammatically incorrect phrases, wrong pronouns and even made up evidence. Its like the 4th doesnt even apply there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    Mike K, Nov 2nd, 2008 @ 5:05pm

    Evidence From An Unconstitutional Search

    I have always had a problem with the exclusion of evidence that was gathered illegally. If it were up to me the laws would support allowing the evidence determined to be factual... however;

    It would also enforce and punish those who broke the law gathering it. The punishment should fit the "crime" and be serious enough to ensure that proper weight is given to individual rights.

    Facts are facts! No criminal should escape because of an error or even a criminal collection of evidence. The illegal collection of evidence and the actual criminal action of how the evidence was collected should be treated as separate judgments.

    Justice should be based on truth.

    Mike k

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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