Good Faith Exception

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The good faith exception to the exclusionary rule created to enforce the fourth amendment allows prosecutorial use of illegally seized evidence if the police made the seizure in good faith reliance on the validity of a search warrant, even though an appellate court later finds that the warrant was unconstitutionally issued. As Justice byron r. white for the Supreme Court stated the doctrine in united states v. leon (1984), the Court "modified" the exclusionary rule "so as not to bar the use in the prosecution's case-in-chief of evidence seized on a search warrant issued by a detached and neutral magistrate but ultimately found to be unsupported by probable cause."

Those who support the good faith exception claim that it does not prevent either the Fourth Amendment or the exclusionary rule from achieving its intended functions. They see the exclusionary rule as a judicially created remedy designed to deter violations of the amendment; and they stress that the substantial costs exacted by the rule often outweigh its benefits. By excluding genuine evidence from the truth-finding process, the rule allows guilty persons to escape punishment and offends basic concepts of criminal justice. These costs can be justified only if the rule deters police misconduct. Advocates of the good faith exception assert, too, that the rule does not lower the probable cause standard and that it loses its deterrent capability when the officer has acted on a good faith belief that he was executing a warrant properly issued by a neutral magistrate and based on probable cause.

Opponents of the exception defend the exclusionary rule as inherent in the Fourth Amendment, preventing law enforcement officials from making any use of evidence obtained through their misconduct or misjudgment. Opponents claim that the amendment itself, not just the rule, makes convictions difficult. They stress that empirical studies show that the social cost of the exclusionary rule in lost prosecutions and acquittals has been exaggerated, and they argue that the rule improves police work by giving real effect to requirements to which law enforcement officials must conform. The good faith exception, on the other hand, places a premium on police ignorance of the law. Although they concede that no individual officer is likely to be deterred from unconstitutional conduct by exclusion of evidence seized in reliance on a defective warrant, the opponents argue that a good faith exception weakens the rule's influence toward a systemic or institutional compliance with the Fourth Amendment. They point out, too, that an objectively reasonable reliance on an unreasonable search or on a warrant lacking probable cause is impossible, because no search and seizure can simultaneously be reasonable and unreasonable. The warrant requirement lies at the heart of the amendment, they contend; and the good faith exception erodes the requirement of probable cause. The Framers of the amendment sought to condition search and seizure on probable cause. They were primarily concerned with illegal warrants—general warrants and writs of assistance. The exception admits illegally seized evidence and in so doing implicates the integrity of the judicial process. The exclusionary rule exists to deter violations of the amendment by all law enforcement agencies, the courts included.

Proponents of the good faith exception regard the courts, including the magistrates who issue warrants, as independent of, not part of, law enforcement agencies. Proponents and opponents of the exception, and of the exclusionary rule, argue from different premises and rarely confront each other's arguments.

Leonard W. Levy


Kamisar, Yale 1984 Gates, "Probable Cause," "Good Faith," and Beyond. Iowa Law Review 69:551–615.