Davis v. United States

Decision Date16 June 2011
Docket NumberNo. 09–11328.,09–11328.
Citation564 U.S. 229,180 L.Ed.2d 285,131 S.Ct. 2419
Parties Willie Gene DAVIS, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Orin S. Kerr, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Michael R. Dreeben, for Respondent.

William W. Whatley, Jr., Montgomery, AL, Orin S. Kerr, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Neal Kumar Katyal, Acting Solicitor General, Lanny A. Breuer, Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Anthony A. Yang, Assistant to the Solicitor General, John M. Pellettieri, Washington, D.C., for United States.

Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Fourth Amendment protects the right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures," but it is silent about how this right is to be enforced. To supplement the bare text, this Court created the exclusionary rule, a deterrent sanction that bars the prosecution from introducing evidence obtained by way of a Fourth Amendment violation. The question here is whether to apply this sanction when the police conduct a search in compliance with binding precedent that is later overruled. Because suppression would do nothing to deter police misconduct in these circumstances, and because it would come at a high cost to both the truth and the public safety, we hold that searches conducted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent are not subject to the exclusionary rule.

I

The question presented arises in this case as a result of a shift in our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence on searches of automobiles incident to arrests of recent occupants.

A

Under this Court's decision in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969), a police officer who makes a lawful arrest may conduct a warrantless search of the arrestee's person and the area "within his immediate control." Id., at 763, 89 S.Ct. 2034 (internal quotation marks omitted). This rule "may be stated clearly enough," but in the early going after Chimel it proved difficult to apply, particularly in cases that involved searches "inside [of] automobile[s] after the arrestees [we]re no longer in [them]." See New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 458–459, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981). A number of courts upheld the constitutionality of vehicle searches that were "substantially contemporaneous" with occupants' arrests.1 Other courts disapproved of automobile searches incident to arrests, at least absent some continuing threat that the arrestee might gain access to the vehicle and "destroy evidence or grab a weapon."2 In New York v. Belton, this Court granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. See id., at 459–460, 101 S.Ct. 2860.

In Belton, a police officer conducting a traffic stop lawfully arrested four occupants of a vehicle and ordered the arrestees to line up, un-handcuffed, along the side of the thruway. Id., at 456, 101 S.Ct. 2860; see Brief for Petitioner in New York v. Belton, O.T.1980, No. 80–328, p. 3. The officer then searched the vehicle's passenger compartment and found cocaine inside a jacket that lay on the backseat. Belton, 453 U.S., at 456, 101 S.Ct. 2860. This Court upheld the search as reasonable incident to the occupants' arrests. In an opinion that repeatedly stressed the need for a "straightforward," "workable rule" to guide police conduct, the Court announced "that when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile." Id., at 459–460, 101 S.Ct. 2860 (footnote omitted).

For years, Belton was widely understood to have set down a simple, bright-line rule. Numerous courts read the decision to authorize automobile searches incident to arrests of recent occupants, regardless of whether the arrestee in any particular case was within reaching distance of the vehicle at the time of the search. See Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615, 628, 124 S.Ct. 2127, 158 L.Ed.2d 905 (2004) (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment) (collecting cases). Even after the arrestee had stepped out of the vehicle and had been subdued by police, the prevailing understanding was that Belton still authorized a substantially contemporaneous search of the automobile's passenger compartment.3

Not every court, however, agreed with this reading of Belton . In State v. Gant, 216 Ariz. 1, 162 P.3d 640 (2007), the Arizona Supreme Court considered an automobile search conducted after the vehicle's occupant had been arrested, handcuffed, and locked in a patrol car. The court distinguished Belton as a case in which "four unsecured" arrestees "presented an immediate risk of loss of evidence and an obvious threat to [a] lone officer's safety." 216 Ariz., at 4, 162 P.3d, at 643. The court held that where no such "exigencies exis[t]"—where the arrestee has been subdued and the scene secured—the rule of Belton does not apply. 216 Ariz., at 4, 162 P.3d, at 643.

This Court granted certiorari in Gant, see 552 U.S. 1230, 128 S.Ct. 1443, 170 L.Ed.2d 274 (2008), and affirmed in a 5–to–4 decision. Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 129 S.Ct. 1710, 173 L.Ed.2d 485 (2009). Four of the Justices in the majority agreed with the Arizona Supreme Court that Belton ' s holding applies only where "the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search." 556 U.S., at ––––, 129 S.Ct., at 1719. The four dissenting Justices, by contrast, understood Belton to have explicitly adopted the simple, bright-line rule stated in the Belton Court's opinion. 556 U.S., at ––––, 129 S.Ct., at 1727 (opinion of ALITO, J.); see Belton, 453 U.S., at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860 ("[W]e hold that when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile" (footnote omitted)). To limit Belton to cases involving unsecured arrestees, the dissenters thought, was to overrule the decision's clear holding. Gant, supra, at ––––, 129 S.Ct., at 1714–1715. Justice SCALIA, who provided the fifth vote to affirm in Gant, agreed with the dissenters' understanding of Belton 's holding. 556 U.S., at ––––, 129 S.Ct., at 1724–1725 (concurring opinion). Justice SCALIA favored a more explicit and complete overruling of Belton, but he joined what became the majority opinion to avoid "a 4–to–1–to–4" disposition. 556 U.S., at ––––, 129 S.Ct., at 1714–1716. As a result, the Court adopted a new, two-part rule under which an automobile search incident to a recent occupant's arrest is constitutional (1) if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle during the search, or (2) if the police have reason to believe that the vehicle contains "evidence relevant to the crime of arrest." Id., at ––––, 129 S.Ct., at 1719 (citing Thornton, supra, at 632, 124 S.Ct. 2127 (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment); internal quotation marks omitted).

B

The search at issue in this case took place a full two years before this Court announced its new rule in Gant . 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.

Davis was indicted in the Middle District of Alabama on one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). In his motion to suppress the revolver, Davis acknowledged that the officers' search fully complied with "existing Eleventh Circuit precedent." App. 13–15. Like most courts, the Eleventh Circuit had long read Belton to establish a bright-line rule authorizing substantially contemporaneous vehicle searches incident to arrests of recent occupants. See United States v. Gonzalez, 71 F.3d 819, 822, 824–827 (C.A.11 1996) (upholding automobile search conducted after the defendant had been "pulled from the vehicle, handcuffed, laid on the ground, and placed under arrest"). Davis recognized that the District Court was obligated to follow this precedent, but he raised a Fourth Amendment challenge to preserve "the issue for review" on appeal. App. 15. The District Court denied the motion, and Davis was convicted on the firearms charge.

While Davis's appeal was pending, this Court decided Gant . The Eleventh Circuit, in the opinion below, applied Gant 's new rule and held that the vehicle search incident to Davis's arrest "violated [his] Fourth Amendment rights." 598 F.3d 1259, 1263 (CA11 2010). As for whether this constitutional violation warranted suppression, the Eleventh Circuit viewed that as a separate issue that turned on "the potential of exclusion to deter wrongful police conduct." Id., at 1265 (quoting Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 137, 129 S.Ct. 695, 172 L.Ed.2d 496 (2009) ; internal quotation marks omitted). The court concluded that "penalizing the [arresting] officer" for following binding appellate precedent would do nothing to "dete [r] ... Fourth Amendment violations." 598 F.3d, at 1265–1266 (bracketing and internal quotation marks omitted). It therefore declined to apply the exclusionary rule and affirmed Davis's conviction. We granted certiorari. 562 U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 502, 178 L.Ed.2d 368 (2010).

II

The Fourth Amendment protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The Amendment says nothing about suppressing evidence obtained in violation of this command. That rule—the exclusionary rule—is a "prudential" doctrine, Pennsylvania Bd. of Probation and Parole v. Scott, 524 U.S. 357, 363, 118 S.Ct....

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