Davis v. United States Case Brief

Summary of Davis v. United States
Citation: 564 U.S. _____, 131 S. Ct. 2419 (2011)

Relevant Facts: Petitioner Willie Davis was arrested following a routine traffic stop in which he provided a false name to police. In conducting a search incident to that arrest, police uncovered a revolver that belonged to Davis. Davis was charged with possession of a weapon by a felon. At trial, Davis moved to suppress the revolver. While counsel agreed that the search was valid under existing precedent in the Circuit, he nonetheless argued the issue and preserved it for appeal. Davis’ motion was denied and he was subsequently convicted. On appeal, Davis raised the Fourth Amendment issue. During the pendency of his appeal, the Supreme Court announced new rules governing the search of a vehicle incident to arrest (Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), holding that search of a vehicle incident to arrest requires either continuing threats to officer safety or the need to preserve evidence). Applying the new rule to Davis, the Eleventh Circuit held that officers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights. However, that court declined to suppress the revolver and held that the exclusionary rule did not apply. Davis appealed.

Issue: Whether searches conducted in good faith reliance on binding precedent at the time the search is conducted are subject to the exclusionary rule when the search is later deemed unconstitutional?

Holding: No, while defendants are entitled to retroactive effect of Supreme Court holdings while their cases are pending, they are not entitled to any particular remedy. Rather, application of the exclusionary rule turns on whether excluding evidence obtained would deter future violations thus justifying the high social costs of excluding valuable, relevant evidence.

Reasoning: Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court. He began with an explanation of the exclusionary rule, pointing out that the sole purpose was to deter future Fourth Amendment violations. In order for application of the exclusionary rule to be appropriate, the deterrent value must outweigh the heavy costs of excluding relevant evidence. Police conduct that is intentional, reckless, or grossly negligent with regard to the Fourth Amendment will generally trigger application of the exclusionary rule; conversely, isolated negligence on the part of police is generally insufficient to justify the heavy costs of suppression under the exclusionary rule. In this case, Davis conceded that the search in question was in good faith reliance on binding precedent at the time of the search. The majority concluded that this was fatal to his claim. Refusing the opportunity to limit the good-faith exception in this case, the majority explained that Davis conflated retroactive application with available remedies. While retroactive application of the Fourth Amendment standard is appropriate, the determination to apply the exclusionary rule involves a separate inquiry. Not all Fourth Amendment violations will trigger the exclusionary rule, indeed, it is only appropriate in those cases where application will further the purpose of the rule. Here, refusal to apply the exclusionary rule does not destroy the retroactive effect of Gant. Finally, the Court dismissed concerns that the rule announced would inhibit future challenges to Fourth Amendment violations. Justice Alito explained that defendants are still free to challenge existing rules, distinguish previous cases, and arguing for application of the exclusionary rule in individual cases.

Concurrence: Justice Sotomayor concurred, writing separately to point out that application of the exclusionary rule turns on whether it would result in appreciable deterrence under the facts of a particular case. In her opinion, officer culpability is not dispositive; rather the inquiry remains focus on deterrent value. Finally, she addressed the dissenters concerns regarding police conduct in the face of unsettled precedent (as opposed to binding precedent later overturned), concluding that the Court did not reach the issue nor does the holding hear apply to unsettled precedent.

Dissent: Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justice Ginsburg, pointing out that the majority would leave Davis with a right (and violation) but no available remedy. As Justice Breyer explained, the very purpose of retroactive application under the Court’s precedent was the availability of a remedy for all violations- even those that may not have been violations as the time the offending conduct was undertaken. Next, the dissenters pointed out that defendants would now be treated differently in cases where the Court changed a rule in their case, but not in cases that were pending at the time of the rule change. Next, Justice Breyer opined that the question of applying the exclusionary rule under the standard announced by the majority turned on officer culpability. He concluded that this was in error as it would weaken the exclusionary rule and ultimately the Fourth Amendment.

Conclusion: The majority concluded that while retroactive application of new standards for searches is appropriate, such retroactive effect does not suggest that exclusion of evidence is the only available remedy. Rather, under existing precedent proper application of the exclusionary rule turns on whether such application will deter future Fourth Amendment violations. Here the Court concluded that application would have no deterrent effect as officers acted in good faith compliance with binding precedent at the time of the search.

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