Good Faith Exception

The Legal Definition of Good Faith Exceptions


The exclusionary rule announced in Weeks v. United States (1914) 232 U.S. 383, and held applicable to the states in Mapp v. Ohio (1961) 367 U.S. 643, is designed to give weight to the Fourth Amendment by suppressing evidence obtained by law enforcement in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Peter F. Iocona, Attorney at Law

An officer’s “good faith” is sometimes cited as a justification for not invoking the rule, on the basis that there is no deterrent value in such situations. See United States v. Leon (1984) 468 U.S. 897. The Leon exception was initially limited to law enforcement’s “good faith” reliance on probable cause decisions made by judicial officers. See In Re Arthur J. (1987) 193 Cal.App.3d 781; People v. White (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 636, 643-44 (no good faith exception for warrantless stops); and People v. Hernandez (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th Supp. 1 (no good faith exception for mistake of law in a warrantless detention). However, in the decades following Leon, the rule has been under constant attack and the “good faith” exception has been extended to other situations.

Most recently, Heien v. North Carolina (2014) 135 S.Ct. 530, 134 S.Ct. 1872, held that reasonable suspicion for a detention may rest on an objectively reasonable, though mistaken, understanding of what a law prohibits. Defendant was purportedly stopped because one of the two brake lights on his car was not working (we say “purportedly” because the stop for a mere “fix-it ticket” included questioning of both the driver and passenger about their destination, a claim of nervousness, and ultimately a claim of consensual search of the vehicle that resulted in a finding of drugs). Although the North Carolina statute only requires a single stop lamp for automobiles, the Supreme Court held the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law was reasonable and the enforcement stop therefore valid. [The Court did not even get to whether an “objective good-faith” exception to the exclusionary rule applied---it simply held that the detention did not constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment because it was reasonable.].

The Heien Court could have simply concluded that the officer was not mistaken about the law, and even intimated as much when it stated “if [the officer mistakenly interpreted the statute].” [emphasis added]. Although N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-129(g) only requires a vehicle to have “a stop lamp” [singular], a separate subsection of the statute mandates that “all originally equipped rear lamps” be functional. N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-129(d).

Kagan, J., (joined by Ginsburg, J.) noted in her concurring opinion that an officer’s reliance on incorrect training or memorandums from a police department can not be the basis for a finding of objective reasonableness because subjective understandings of the law are irrelevant. The majority agreed that the officer’s subjective belief about the subject statute was not at issue, citing Whren v. United States (1996), 517 U. S. 806, 813.

Sotomayer, J., offered the following prediction in her lone dissent: “I fear the Court’s unwillingness to sketch a fuller view of what makes a mistake of law reasonable only presages the likely difficulty that courts will have applying the Court’s decision in this case.”

Davis v. United States (2011) 564 U.S. ___ 131 S.Ct. 2419, declined to invoke the exclusionary rule based on law enforcement’s “objectively reasonable good faith belief” that their conduct was lawful. Police found contraband in a vehicle search after the occupants had been arrested and placed in a patrol car. At the time, such searches were commonly thought to be legal under New York v. Belton (1981) 453 U.S. 454, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had held in U.S. v. Gonzales (1996) 71 F.3d 819, at 825, that Belton created a bright line rule authorizing such searches.

Subsequently, Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. ___ 129 S.Ct. 1710, clarified that Belton does not authorize such searches, and though the Davis case was still pending (making Gant the controlling authority), the exclusionary rule was held inapplicable and the evidence was ruled admissible. It is important to note, however, that the binding appellate precedent supporting the “objective good faith” exception in Davis is limited by the court’s language to decisions by it, federal circuit Court of Appeals, and state courts of last resort.

Earlier, Illinois v. Krull, 480 U.S. 340 (1987) extended the exception to searches conducted in good faith reliance on subsequently invalidated statutes. Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1 (1995) applied it where police reasonably relied upon erroneous information concerning an arrest warrant in a database maintained by judicial employees. Herring v. United States (2009) 555 U.S. 135, discussed a “cost-benefit” analysis wherein the 5-4 majority proclaimed that the exclusionary rule is not an individual right and is only triggered where it results in appreciable deterrence [citing Leon]:

To trigger the exclusionary rule, police conduct must be sufficiently deliberate that exclusion can meaningfully deter it, and sufficiently culpable that such deterrence is worth the price paid by the justice system. As laid out in our cases, the exclusionary rule serves to deter deliberate, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct, or in some circumstances recurring or systematic negligence. Id.

People v. Pearl (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 1280, is a post-Herring decision that reaffirmed that the prosecution bears the burden of proving any good faith exception. This rule may not apply where “objective good faith” reliance on binding appellate precedent is found to have existed at the time of the Fourth Amendment violation, but it otherwise remains controlling law. Furthermore, a prosecutor’s failure to raise and prove the “good faith” exception at the trial court level should only be excused on appeal where the new law is published subsequent to the court’s ruling. In Davis, the Arizona v. Gant decision was not issued until after the District Court’s hearing and decision, so the prosecutor had no reason to raise the “good faith” exception at that juncture.

Remember, “Good faith is not a magic lamp for police officers to rub whenever they find themselves in trouble.” People v. Hulland (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 1646, 1656. The good faith must be grounded in honesty.