People are unfamiliar with the way that the exclusionary rule operates to deny justice. Why, even a former public defender writing in a major national newspaper doesn’t get it — or, at least, he pretends not to.
In an op-ed in yesterday’s L.A. Times, David Feige writes:
SO THAT’S IT?” My young African American client was shaking his head in disbelief, a look of expectant perplexity warming his face.
“Yep,” I smiled, giving him a quick embrace, “Case dismissed.”
“Cool,” he said, shaking his head just a little bit.
This exchange took place some years ago in a fluorescent-lighted hallway just outside the subterranean courtroom of Judge Robert Cohen in the Bronx. The judge had just ruled that because the police illegally searched a bag inside the trunk of my client’s car, the gun they found there would not be admitted into evidence. And so, there, outside Cohen’s courtroom, I was saying goodbye to a client who no longer faced the specter of a prison term.
Heartwarming, isn’t it? But we soon learn that, according to Feige, the rosy scenario of the guilty going free is happening all too seldom:
Such an outcome, though depicted regularly on “Law & Order,” is actually uncommon. And from now on, there’ll be even fewer.
. . . .
As Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent suggests, last week’s [knock-and-announce] ruling is itself a significant departure from traditional 4th Amendment jurisprudence. But though the Hudson decision is deeply alarming for what it says, it is even more so for what it presages: a direct attack on the entire remedy of suppression.
Feige says that this is terrible, because the exclusionary rule is almost dead anyway. He knows this because he talked to some public defenders, and they say that they haven’t won a lot of hearings:
For all its traditional centrality and high-minded value, the exclusionary rule these days is honored mainly in the breach. In an informal poll of several public defenders, most could count on one hand the number of times they’ve won suppression motions that have resulted in dismissal.
The fact that the exclusionary rule has been virtually dead for years may come as a surprise to those who don’t see the daily grind of cases being processed through the system.
Yeah, and it comes as an even bigger surprise to those of us who do.
No, suppression motions are not routinely granted (although it happens). But what Feige doesn’t take into account is the filtering that happens before a case gets to court. Police bring cases to a filing D.A., who makes a decision about whether the case should be filed, based upon numerous factors. One of the factors that the filing D.A. considers is whether the case is going to be dismissed because the defense would almost certainly win a suppression motion.
I have seen this happen first-hand. A friend of mine files cases, and I have been in his office watching him explain to the filing officer that he won’t file the case, because the officer had no justification for the search. (By the way, a “bad search” doesn’t necessarily mean we have a “bad cop.” Scroll down to this post for an explanation.)
I can’t give you statistics on how often cases are rejected due to a bad search. But I’d wager that it happens far more often than it happens that a case gets filed and tossed out of court due to a bad search. (I have seen that happen too, by the way.) That’s because your average filing D.A. knows his job, and won’t file a case that’s a sure loser on a suppression motion.
Defense attorneys never see these cases, because they don’t get filed to begin with. So you can’t measure the number of guilty people set free by the exclusionary rule by asking public defenders how many cases they win on suppression motions.
Many more guilty people go free than Mr. Feige and his fellow public defenders see in court.
Mr. Feige should know better. True, he was a public defender, and public defenders don’t file cases. But public defenders know that cases have to be filed, and they know that the exclusionary rule plays a role in filing decisions. If he is going to write a book about this stuff, and write op-eds in major newspapers about it, he owes his readers a duty to be more accurate.
The worst part is that his words take on a greater ring of truth because of his status as a former “insider.” That’s what I have taken the time to type up this post, so you’ll see that not all “insiders” agree with him.
UPDATE: A commenter notes that the author of the op-ed limits his poll of public defenders to the issue of “the number of times they’ve won suppression motions that have resulted in dismissal.” Why is that the relevant number? Why isn’t it the number of suppression motions they have won — period?
In my experience, most suppression motions do result in dismissal, so I wouldn’t think this would lead to a significant difference. But I find it curious that he needs to qualify the statement that way.