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Friday, January 16, 2009

Supreme Court OK's Searches based on Computer Errors

Supremecourt Drug evidence found during an unlawful arrest arising from a police computer error could be used at trial, a divided Supreme Court says.

The 5-4 decision on Wednesday means that the nation's high court is distancing itself from the so-called "exclusionary rule" that prohibits police from using evidence obtained from illegal searches. In this instance, the court ruled that there was an innocent mistake: an erroneous computer record about a motorist stopped in traffic by Alabama authorities stating he had an outstanding arrest warrant, which made him eligible for an automatic search.

Four dissenting judges said the search, which found drugs and a gun, violated Bennie Dean Herring's Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable searches.

"The most serious impact of the court's holding will be on innocent persons wrongfully arrested based on erroneous information carelessly maintained in a computer database," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote (.pdf) in a dissenting opinion.

After an officer stopped Herring, a clerk messaged him that he was a fugitive who did not appear in court on a felony accusation. The officer subsequently searched Herring and found methamphetamine and a gun. Moments later, the clerk called back the officer and said the warrant had been vacated -- a fact that was not entered into the police's computer database.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said evidence could be used against the motorist because the police mistake was a "negligent bookkeeping error" and that the authorities did not deliberately violate Herring's rights.

Photo: functoruser
By David Kravets