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When Can Police Error Lead to the Suppression of Evidence?

Posted on Apr 14, 2010

In a previous post I had talked about a court's refusal to suppress evidence obtained from a search incident to arrest, where the arrest warrant was stale.   In that case, the police were executing a warrant issued by another county but, due to a glitch, the database was not properly updated, and the police arrested the defendant.  As improperly seized evidence is primarily suppressed by the court to deter bad conduct by law enforcement, the court did not see deterrence as a substantial enough issue to outweigh the injustice to the public.  The police would have been punished for making an honest mistake.  But what if the police are acting on bad information from their own department?

That is the case in a ruling by the New Jersey Appellate court on April 12, State v. Handy .  There, the police had lawfully detained a suspect and called in for a warrant check. The dispatcher reported an active warrant but did not advise the officers that the information the officers had provided on the arrestee did not properly match up against police records. On the basis of the bad information provided by the dispatcher, the police arrested the suspect and found illegal drugs in a subsequent search. To make matters worse, it was later discovered that there was no active warrant for the person the police had arrested, and that the purported warrant was most likely for another person!

The Court ruled that negligence by a police dispatcher in not properly advising arresting officers required the suppression of evidence. The judges cited the need under our State Constitution to deter negligent actions by police and those working for them that result in illegal arrests and unreasonable searches.  A person's Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure are very important, but the courts do weigh the suppression of evidence with punishing the guilty and protecting the public on one side of the scales, and the need to deter bad conduct by law enforcement on the other.  Depending on the circumstances, one side outweighs the other, as can be seen in these two cases.