Good Faith Reliance on Bad Laws: Two New Cases

The United States Supreme Court decided two major Fourth Amendment cases recently that significantly change the way California police officers conduct criminal investigations.

Last year, in Missouri v. McNeely, a majority of the Court held that police officers may not conduct a warrantless blood draw of a person arrested for DUI, if the arrestee refuses to consent to the search. The Supreme Court rejected the government’s argument that a warrantless blood draw is justified in every DUI case because blood alcohol dissipates over time. This argument was baseless, the Court recognized, since officers can typically obtain a search warrant in short order.

Then came Riley v. California, decided this summer. In Riley, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that police officers cannot search a cell phone without a warrant simply because the owner had the phone on his or her person at the time of arrest. The Court disagreed with the government’s position that a cell phone was like any other container (such as a wallet or pack of cigarettes) that police are currently permitted to search when taking someone into custody.

Based on McNeely, a person who is arrested today can seek to suppress (i.e., exclude from evidence) blood results if they were obtained without a warrant, and after the person affirmatively refused to provide the blood sample. And based on Riley, the results of a warrantless cell phone search conducted today will generally be suppressed, absent some other justification for the search (e.g., consent from the person arrested).

But what happens to evidence obtained in violation of McNeely or Riley if the search took place before those opinions were published?

Our state Court of Appeal ruled this week in two cases that defendants are not entitled to suppression as a remedy for pre-McNeely or pre-Riley searches. (See People v. Youn [dealing with warrantless blood drawns] and People v. Macabeo
[dealing with warrantless cell phone searches].)

Why should these defendants be treated so differently based on the date of the search? To understand the reason, you need to know that California appellate courts had allowed warrantless blood draws in DUI cases and warrantless cell phone searches before the United States Supreme Court disapproved them in McNeeley and Riley. You also need to realize that the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter police misconduct.

Based on this precedent, the Youn and Macabeo courts concluded that suppressing evidence for pre-McNeely/pre-Riley searches would not advance the purpose of the exclusionary rule. The courts opined that police officers had the right to rely on California precedent that upheld these types of warrantless searches, even though that precedent was later determined to be wrongly decided.

This was a predictable outcome based on another case, Davis v. United States. In Davis, the United States Supreme Court applied an identical analysis to forbid the suppression of evidence seized during an automobile search that was clearly illegal (based on US Supreme Court precedent decided after the search), but was justified at the time it was conducted under lower-court precedent that was binding in the jurisdiction where the search occurred. It would have been Youn or Macabeo

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