By Anthony Biraglia

In United States v. Kenneth Rush, a criminal case decided and published on December 21, 2015, the Fourth Circuit reversed a West Virginia district court’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence. The Court found that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule did not apply, and that lying about the existence of a search warrant was exactly the type of police conduct that the exclusionary rule guards against. The Court thus determined that evidence found during a search of Kenneth Rush’s (“Rush”) apartment should be suppressed, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Circumstances of the Search and Motion In Limine

Police in Charleston, West Virginia, searched the apartment where Rush was staying pursuant to the consent of a co-habitant, who had earlier told police that she was afraid of Rush and that he was dealing drugs out of the apartment. During the search, a police officer told Rush that they had a warrant to search the apartment in response to his inquiries about why the officers were conducting the search. The officers knew that they did not, in fact, have a valid warrant to search the apartment. The search turned up crack cocaine and digital scales, which Rush admitted were his. However, the police did not arrest Rush at that time, nor did they arrest him when he made a voluntary trip to the police station to answer questions about his supplier. He was eventually arrested and charged with one count of knowingly and intentionally possessing with the intent to distribute twenty-eight grams or more of cocaine base under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).

Rush moved in limine to suppress the evidence seized. While the district court did find a violation of Rush’s Fourth Amendment right to object to the search, it determined that the officers’ lie about the search warrant was a “justifiable attempt to protect” the co-habitant and that exclusion would have little deterrent effect on police conduct. Rush pled guilty while reserving the right to appeal the district court’s decision on his suppression motion. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s legal conclusions de novo and factual findings for clear error.

The Good-Faith Exception to the Exclusionary Rule is Not Applicable

The exclusionary rule is designed to deter violations of the Fourth Amendment by police through the exclusion of evidence that is the fruit of an unlawful search. Even though the search in this case was unlawful, the United States argued that the evidence should still be admissible under the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. The good-faith exception applies where the police act with an objectively reasonable, good-faith belief that their conduct is lawful. The Supreme Court has applied the good-faith exception in cases where the police relied upon a facially valid warrant, and where police relied upon erroneous information from the Clerk of Court’s office concerning an outstanding warrant.

The Court found that a deliberate lie about the existence of a warrant was unlike other situations where the good-faith exception has applied. The officer who made the statement in this case was a sixteen-year veteran of the police force that the Court reasoned could not have believed that it was lawful to lie about the existence of a search warrant. It is settled law that such lies are violative of the Fourth Amendment.

The government argued that the officers did not intend to violate Rush’s rights, but rather lied to him in order to protect the co-habitant. Whether or not this was truly their motive, (and the Court cited evidence showing that it was likely not) the test for the good-faith exception is subjective rather than objective. The the police officers’ subjective intentions are therefore irrelevant.

Exclusion of this Evidence will Deter Police Misconduct

Unlike the district court, the Fourth Circuit found that excluding the evidence would likely deter police officers from violating the Fourth Amendment in similar circumstances going forward. Quoting the Sixth Circuit, the Court stated “so long as there is an exclusionary rule, it seems safe to say that it will apply to officers who enter and remain in a house based on false pretense.”

Reversed and Remanded

For the above reasons, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision on the suppression motion and remanded the case for further proceedings.