Illinois v. Krull

480 U. S. 340

March 9, 1987

Ask, and ye shall receive! After complaining in the last two posts about the exclusionary rule, the Court makes a decision limiting its reach! Illinois had a law allowing the police to regularly inspect the records of auto yards without a warrant. One day in 1981, police found stolen cars at a junkyard while conducting such an inspection. The very next day, in a totally separate suit, the Illinois law was declared unconstitutional by a federal court. On the basis of that decision, Krull tried to get the junkyard evidence suppressed. The police argued that when the search actually occurred, they were relying on a statute which they had no way of knowing was unconstitutional.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court held that evidence need not be excluded if officers were relying in good faith on a law that was only later declared unconstitutional. Justice Blackmun wrote the majority opinion, and analogized the issue to that in United States v. Leon, where the Court held that the exclusionary rule would not apply if a judge accidentally issued a warrant without probable cause. The purpose of the exclusionary rule, Blackmun said, is to deter police misconduct, and penalizing officers for relying upon good law does not contribute to that end. He also said that Courts should trust legislators to not pass unconstitutional laws. The only exception would be if a law a policeman relied upon was blatantly unconstitutional on its face.

O’Connor dissented, and was joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens. Unlike Blackmun, she did not feel the trust giving to judges in Leon should also be given to legislators, citing the distrust the American colonists had of the British Parliament. She also worried that it would be difficult for judges to determine what laws could be considered blatantly unconstitutional, and thus not entitled to police reliance. The law at issue here provided a good example, she argued, since its Constitutionality was still unsettled six years later. Finally, O’Connor thought the majority opinion seemed inconsistent with Griffith. Marshall concurred in her dissent, with the statement that she had discussed a couple of precedents unnecessarily.

Contra O’Connor, I think the unsettled Constitutionality of the Illinois law is, if anything, a good argument that the exclusionary rule shouldn’t apply. Why in the world should evidence be excluded if the law might ultimately turn out to be Constitutional? Even though Krull was a good decision, I’m going to say it again: the exclusionary rule sucks. The truly guilty should be found guilty, and a nation should not prioritize rules and procedures over substantive justice. I also don’t like Krull’s tacit implication that police should be trusted less than legislators, a notion which is both elitist and probably untrue.

Finally, while I have no empirical evidence to back this up, I do have a strong supposition that the exclusionary rule has paradoxically resulted in far too much police power. Over the last several decades, I’m willing to bet that there are many pro-police Supreme Court rulings which would have gone the other way but for the harsh remedy of the exclusionary rule. The upshot is that police are now allowed to use all sorts of dubious methods and practices that the Supreme Court probably would have prohibited had the exclusionary rule not existed.

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