©2011 Jack Ryan, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)2011 U.S. Supreme Court ~ Davis v. United States

Evidence Seized in Incident to Arrest Automobile Searches before Rules were changed in Arizona v. Gant is not Subject to Exclusion

In a decision which only impacts search incident to arrest of motor vehicles which occurred before the United States Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant [i] the UnitedStates Supreme Court examined whether evidence seized pre-Gant under the old rules should be excluded at trials which occurred post-Gant. [ii]

In examining the facts of the case, the Court noted that the search at issue occurred some two years before the Court decided Arizona v. Gant.  In Gant the Court concluded that:

Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee’s vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies.

The Court detailed the stop of Davis and the search of the vehicle as follows:

On an April evening in 2007, police officers in Greenville, Alabama, conducted a routine traffic stop that eventually resulted in the arrests of driver Stella Owens (for driving while intoxicated) and passenger Willie Davis (for giving a false name to police). The police handcuffed both Owens and Davis, and they placed the arrestees in the back of separate patrol cars. The police then searched the passenger compartment of Owens’s vehicle and found a revolver inside Davis’s jacket pocket.

Clearly, unless the officers could articulate a reasonable belief that there was evidence in the automobile related to the charges being brought i.e. evidence of driving while intoxicated or giving a false name, the search at issue would violate the rule which was announced two years after the search in Gant.   The officers in this case not knowing the future would have had no reason to articulate such reasonable belief since the search, as conducted here, was common law enforcement practice and consistent with the binding legal precedent of their jurisdiction.  Since the suspects were secured and there was no reported reason to believe the car contained evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, Davis argued that the gun should be excluded.

At the outset of its analysis the Court noted that the sole purpose of the exclusionary rule was to deter law enforcement misconduct.  The Court then identified when the exclusionary rule should apply and when the evidence should be allowed:

Citing prior cases, the Court asserted:

The basic insight of the Leon line of cases is that the deterrence benefits of exclusion “vary with the culpability of the law enforcement conduct” at issue. When the police exhibit “deliberate,” “reckless,” or “grossly negligent” disregard for Fourth Amendment rights, the deterrent value of exclusion is strong and tends to outweigh the resulting costs.  But when the police act with an objectively “reasonable good-faith belief” that their conduct is lawful, or when their conduct involves only simple, “isolated” negligence, the “‘deterrence rationale loses much of its force,'” and exclusion cannot “pay its way.”

The Court outlined a number of different instances where its prior decisions had applied the Good-Faith of the officers to overcome exclusion of evidence.  In doing so, the majority framed the issue as follows:

The question in this case is whether to apply the exclusionary rule when the police conduct a search in objectively reasonable reliance on binding judicial precedent. At the time of the search at issue here, we had not yet decided Arizona v. Gant.

In looking at the officer’s conduct in this case, the Court noted that the United States Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit which was controlling for the officers allowed the very type of search undertaken by the officers.  As such the officers had not culpability with respect to a violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Thus, the officers’ actions at the time of the search were objectively reasonable.

The Court held that the gun should not be suppressed since the officers’ conduct in searching the car was not culpable but instead was based on the officers’ good-faith reliance on the judicial precedent of the Eleventh Circuit.


  1. United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984), for example, held that the exclusionary rule does not apply when the police conduct a search in “objectively reasonable reliance” on a warrant later held invalid.
  2. Illinois v. Krull, 480 U.S. 340 (1987), extended the good-faith exception to searches conducted in reasonable reliance on subsequently invalidated statutes. (“legislators, like judicial officers, are not the focus of the rule”).
  3. In Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1 (1995) the Court applied the good-faith exception in a case where the police reasonably relied on erroneous information concerning an arrest warrant in a database maintained by judicial employees.
  4. Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135 (2009), extended Evans in a case where police employees erred in maintaining records in a warrant database. “Isolated,” “nonrecurring” police negligence, we determined, lacks the culpability required to justify the harsh sanction of exclusion.


NOTE:    Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal advisor regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.


United States v. Davis 11th Circuit Decision

Arizona v. Gant


[i] Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. ___,  129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009).

[ii] Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. ___, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 4560, slip opinion 09-11328 (June 16, 2011).

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