Tuesday, June 4, 2002
State Supreme Court Limits Good-Faith Exception to Exclusionary Rule
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule does not apply when a police officer makes a warrantless search with the assistance of a parole agent, and both officer and agent were acting on the basis of erroneous information suggesting the defendant was on parole, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices unanimously overturned Gary Wayne Willis’ conviction on drug charges. Willis was arrested after a search of his Bakersfield motel room resulted in the seizure of a briefcase containing narcotics, syringes, spoons and a set of scales.
The search was conducted by a Bakersfield officer assigned to the Kern County Narcotics Enforcement Team, a parole agent whose duties included assisting local law enforcement, another Bakersfield officer, and a Kern County sheriff’s detective.
The lead officer, Joseph Mullins of the Bakersfield Police Department, began an investigation after Willis was identified as the occupant of the motel room, which a motel clerk noted was the subject of a large volume of foot traffic. A “parole book” kept by the Bakersfield department showed that Willis was a parolee, and the parole agent contacted by Mullins, Diane Mora, agreed that a parole search was appropriate and joined the group that went to the room.
When the four arrived and informed Willis that they were there to make a parole search, he told them that he was no longer on parole and produced a certificate indicating that he had completed parole nine months earlier. Mullins said he did not consider the certificate “conclusive” and went ahead with the search—allegedly with the defendant’s consent.
In opposition to the defendant’s motion to suppress, the prosecution argued that there was a valid consent search. Even if there wasn’t consent, it was argued, the evidence should be admitted under the series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions recognizing a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule where an officer reasonably relies on a non-law-enforcement source’s error in executing what the officer believes to be a valid search.
The high court has applied the exception in three situations—where the officer relies on a search warrant later determined to be valid, where the search is authorized by a statute later determined to be unconstitutional, or where the officer receives erroneous information from a court employee indicating that the defendant has an outstanding arrest warrant.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that none of the exceptions applied, but held that the search was valid because the police would have eventually obtained a warrant and seized the evidence lawfully.
But the Supreme Court ruled otherwise.
Whether the police would have eventually obtained a warrant is irrelevant, Justice Ming Chin wrote, because probable cause cannot be based on observations made following illegal entry.
Nor does the good faith exception apply, he concluded, because the parole agent was “part of the law enforcement team,” regardless of whether the erroneous information came from a sworn officer or—as the attorney general suggested in his brief to the Supreme Court—a data clerk.
Chin noted that the parole agent was an active participant in the search, making it irrelevant which employee of her agency, the Department of Corrections, supplied the erroneous information. In any event, he said, if the erroneous information came from a non-law-enforcement source, the burden is on the prosecution to prove it, and that didn’t happen in this case.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown concurred in the result. The officers, she said, could not have acted in good faith once Willis showed them his parole discharge certificate.
The case is People v. Willis, 02 S.O.S. 2720.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company