In May 2013, Marguita Wills lived Charleston, West Virginia. She had a male companion named Kenneth Rush living with her in her apartment. He had been there for two nights.
For some reason, Wills came to suspect that Rush was dealing drugs from her apartment. She called the Metropolitan Drug Enforcement Network Team asking that they remove Rush from her apartment. She told the authorities she was afraid him because his family had a history of violence, but did not alleged he had committed any crimes against her.
Consent to Search
Two members of the Charleston Police Department, Lt. A.C. Napier and Sgt. William Winkler, arranged a meeting with Wills. She gave the officers a key to her apartment and a signed consent to search it. The two went directly to the apartment where they were joined two detectives and a uniformed officer.
With guns drawn, the law enforcement contingent entered the apartment with the key provide by Wills. They yelled “police” to make their presence known. Two of the detectives found Rush sleeping in the bed in the master bedroom. They handcuffed him and escorted him into the living room where they removed the handcuffs after making sure the apartment was clear of anyone else.
Intentional Lie about Existence of Search Warrant
During this process, Rush asked what was going on, to which Sgt. Winkler responded they had a search warrant. That was a calculated lie. The officers had no warrant. Winkler would later testify at a suppression hearing that he deliberately lied to Rush about the warrant because he was trying to protect Wills.
The search of the apartment discovered crack cocaine. Rush cooperated with the officers, admitting to one of the detectives that the drugs belonged to him. He even gave up his supplier.
Drugs in hand, the group of officers left without either arresting or removing Rush from the apartment.
Rush visited the drug task force office later that day and provided the detective with additional information about his supplier. He was not arrested.
Indicted for Possession of Cocaine Base
Rush was ultimately arrested following his indictment for one count of knowingly and intentionally possessing twenty-eight grams or more of cocaine base.
Motion to Suppress
Rush’s attorney filed a motion to suppress all the evidence seized from the apartment.
The federal district court had no question finding that the search of the Wills apartment was unlawful. The court said it clearly violated Rush’s right under Supreme Court precedent to object to the officers’ presence in and search of the apartment he cohabitated.
District Court Finds Search Unlawful but Officer’s Lie Justifiable
The only issue for the district court to decide was whether Sgt. Winkler acted in good faith when he lied about having a search warrant. The court concluded the officer’s actions to protect Wills were “justifiable” and that suppressing the evidence would have a “vanishingly low” impact of deterring future police misconduct.
The district court denied the suppression motion.
Rush entered a guilty plea, preserving his right to appeal the district court’s decision to deny the suppression motion. He was sentenced to one year and one day of incarceration followed by three years of supervised release.
Defendant’s Fourth Amendment Rights were Violated
On appeal, the government did not contest that defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The only argument was whether the evidence should have been admitted pursuant to the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals pointed to Supreme Court precedent that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unlawful searches and seizures does not necessarily require suppression of evidence. The Supreme Court through the years has made it abundantly clear that the exclusionary rule is not a “personal constitutional right” nor does it exist to “redress the injury” caused by an unconstitutional right. It is a remedy that exists under certain circumstances. The exclusionary rule’s purpose is to deter future Fourth Amendment violations.
“The Fourth Amendment provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. The Fourth Amendment does not “expressly preclud[e] the use of evidence obtained in violation of its commands.” United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 906 (1984). However, courts have developed a “prudential” doctrine that—under certain circumstances—prohibits evidence obtained through an unconstitutional search from being used against the subject of the search in a criminal trial. Pa. Bd. of Prob. & Parole v. Scott, 524 U.S. 357, 363 (1998).”
And that’s why district and appellate courts must determine, in those cases involving a clear-cut unlawful search and seizure, whether the “substantial social costs” of excluding the evidence is greater than the need to deter future police misconduct in Fourth Amendment situations.
Intentional, Reckless or Grossly Negligent Conduct
The Supreme Court has instructed the lower courts that when the police exhibit “deliberate,” “reckless,” or “grossly negligent” disregard for the Fourth Amendment, that the deterrent value of the exclusion is strong, outweighing the “social cost” of preventing prosecution, and that the evidence obtained as a result of this kind of misconduct should be excluded.
However, when the police reasonably believe their conduct is lawful or when they have engaged in “isolated” negligence, the unlawfully obtained evidence is potentially admissible because the “deterrence value” associated with exclusion is relatively insignificant.
No Argument for Good Faith Exception to Exclusionary Rule
The question before the Fourth Circuit, then, was whether Sgt. Winkler’s misconduct was significantly egregious or an act of “isolated” negligence. The appeals court explained why it believed Sgt. Winkler’s misconduct was inexcusable:
“The present case bears no resemblance to the previous applications of the good-faith exception [by the Supreme Court]. Here, the search was unconstitutional due to the intentional decision of Sergeant Winkler to tell Defendant that there was a search warrant, even though he knew that his statement was untrue. This is not a case of negligence, or reasonable reliance on faulty information … Rather, it is a case of a deliberate lie.
“The good-faith exception, therefore, would apply in this case only if the officers held an objectively reasonable belief that it was lawful to conduct the search after lying about the existence of a warrant.”
We don’t think this was even a close call.
Fourth Amendment Survives Good Faith Assault
Sergeant Winkler was a veteran police officer at the time of this incident. There can be n argument that a police officer with far less experience would appreciate that obtaining consent to search by falsely claiming a valid search warrant was illegal. Sgt. Winkler’s justification for the deliberate lie about the search warrant was completely smothered when he and the other officers left Wills’ apartment without arresting or removing Rush. The moment Rush was escorted into the living room of the apartment, the handcuffs removed, and he asked what was going on, Sgt. Winkler, or certainly one of the other experienced detectives, knew he had a right to object to their presence in, and search of, the apartment he cohabitated. Telling him they had a warrant when they didn’t effectively preventing him from asserting his rights. This conduct was deliberate and is exactly the type of conduct that the exclusionary rule seeks to deter.
The Sergeant’s motivations for intentionally lying about the existence of a search warrant were immaterial. It was the intentional decision to lie that triggered the exclusion.