The Fourth Amendment generally requires law enforcement obtain a warrant prior to seizing or searching property, and the warrant must be based on probable cause. Any evidence discovered in violation of those requirements may be excluded from trial. Such exclusion is not required by the Fourth Amendment, but rather is a “a judicially created remedy designed to safeguard Fourth Amendment rights generally through [a] deterrent effect.” United States v. Calandra, 414 U.S. 338, 348 (1974). That exclusionary rule is codified in the Military Rules of Evidence with the caveats that such exclusion must “result in appreciable deterrence,” and “the benefits of such deterrence [must] outweigh the costs to the justice system.” Mil. R. Evid. 311(a)(3).
But there are exceptions. One exception – also codified in the Military Rules of Evidence – involves a warrant (or military search authorization) that is somehow flawed. If a warrant is issued by competent authority with a substantial basis for finding probable cause, but is later determined to be invalid, the exclusionary rule does not apply if law enforcement “reasonably and with good faith” relied on the warrant to conduct the search or seizure. Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3). This good faith exception to the exclusionary rule recognizes that there is no deterrent effect, and so no justification for the practical cost of excluding evidence of wrongdoing, when a law enforcement officer “is acting as a reasonable officer would and should act in similar circumstances.” United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 920 (1984). In other words:
If the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter unlawful police conduct, then evidence obtained from a search should be suppressed only if it can be said that the law enforcement officer had knowledge, or may properly be charged with knowledge, that the search was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.
United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 919 (1984) (quoting United States v. Peltier, 422 U.S. 531, 542 (1975)).
The good faith exception codified in Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3) applies only when:
(A) the search or seizure resulted from an authorization to search, seize or apprehend issued by an individual competent to issue the authorization under Mil. R. Evid. 315(d) or from a search warrant or arrest warrant issued by competent civil authority;
(B) the individual issuing the authorization or warrant had a substantial basis for determining the existence of probable cause; and
(C) the officials seeking and executing the authorization or warrant reasonably and with good faith relied on the issuance of the authorization or warrant. Good faith is to be determined using an objective standard.
That second requirement, however, doesn’t seem to involve the officer actually conducting the search or seizure. Applying the plain language of Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3)(B), if a warrant is invalid and there was no substantial basis to find probable cause to issue it, then the good faith exception does not apply no matter what the officer thought.
It’s a rule that swallows the exception, because an officer might rely on a warrant to conduct a search, and that reliance might be objectively reasonable, but the exception won’t apply if later analysis reveals that there was no basis for finding probable cause to issue the warrant. CAAF addressed this issue in United States v. Carter, and observed that the substantial basis requirement in Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3)(B) would – if applied as written – “effectively abolish the good faith exception in military practice.” 54 M.J. 414, 421 (C.A.A.F. 2001). CAAF then decided to interpret the requirement narrowly:
“Substantial basis” as an element of good faith examines the affidavit and search authorization through the eyes of a reasonable law enforcement official executing the search authorization. In this context, the second prong of Mil. R. Evid. 311(b)(3) is satisfied if the law enforcement official had an objectively reasonable belief that the magistrate had a “substantial basis” for determining the existence of probable cause.
Carter, 54 M.J. at 422. Put differently, if the officer exercising the warrant objectively believes that there was a substantial basis for finding probable cause to issue the warrant, then the officer acts in good faith and the exception may apply. If, however, the officer knows or should know that there wasn’t a substantial basis to find probable cause, but nevertheless exercises the warrant, then the officer is not acting in good faith and the exception won’t save the evidence from exclusion.
That interpretation was relatively settled until CAAF unsettled it in United States v. Hoffmann, 75 M.J. 120 (C.A.A.F. Feb. 18, 2016) (CAAFlog case page). Hoffmann was accused of committing indecent liberties with children, and a military commander authorized a search of Hoffman’s electronic devices for child pornography based on “an intuitive relationship between acts such as enticement or child molestation and the possession of child pornography.” 75 M.J. at 123. CAAF rejected that intuitive link as a basis for probable cause and invalidated the authorization (and reversed Hoffmann’s convictions). But CAAF also rejected application of the good faith exception, concluding that:
the individual issuing the authorization did not have a substantial basis for determining the existence of probable cause, a requirement for application of the good-faith exception.
75 M.J. at 128. That conclusion is contrary to the holding from Carter that focused the analysis on what the law enforcement officer knew or should have known about the basis for finding probable cause (and not on whether there actually was a substantial basis for finding probable cause).
CAAF acknowledged its inconsistency the following year, in United States v. Nieto, 76 M.J. 101 (C.A.A.F. Feb. 21, 2017) (CAAFlog case page), where it summarily concluded that the Army Government Appellate Division failed to establish that the good faith exception applied while observing (in a footnote) that:
We recognize the tension between our discussion of the good-faith doctrine in Hoffmann, 75 M.J. at 127-28, and Carter, 54 M.J. at 419-22. We leave for another day resolution of this tension because we conclude that under either understanding of the good-faith doctrine the Government has not met its burden of establishing this exception to the exclusionary rule in Appellant’s case.
United States v. Nieto, 76 M.J. 101, 108 n.6 (C.A.A.F. 2017).
That day has come:
No. 18-0365/MC. U.S. v. Calvin E. Perkins, Jr. CCA 201700077. Notice is hereby given that a certificate for review of the decision of the United States Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals was filed under Rule 22 on this date on the following issues:
I. WHETHER THIS COURT’S HOLDING IN UNITED STATES v. CARTER AS APPLIED BY THE NAVY-MARINE CORPS COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS IN THIS CASE, INSTEAD OF THE PLAIN READING OF MRE 311(c) THIS COURT APPLIED IN UNITED STATES v. HOFFMANN, CONTROLS IN ANALYZING THE APPLICABILITY OF THE GOOD FAITH EXCEPTION TO THE EXCLUSIONARY RULE.
II. WHETHER THE MILITARY JUDGE ERRED IN DENYING A DEFENSE MOTION TO SUPPRESS EVIDENCE OBTAINED FROM A SEARCH OF APPELLANT’S HOME.
The NMCCA issued a published decision in Perkins (available here) that concluded:
Carter’s approach to MIL. R. EVID. 311(c)(3) is inconsistent with the rule’s plain language, and Hoffmann’s plain-language approach is therefore inconsistent with Carter. . . .
We conclude that we are still bound by Carter. We are reluctant to assume that the CAAF has tacitly reversed its own precedent. Hoffmann made no mention of Carter and did not purport to change any precedents binding on this court. . . .
United States v. Perkins, 78 M.J. 550, 561, No. 201700077, slip op. at 13-14 (N.M. Ct. Crim. App. Jul. 12, 2018). The CCA then found that the good faith exception applies to the case and affirmed the findings and the sentence, but it observed that its “choice of authorities determines the outcome of this issue” and “under Hoffman, the evidence does not qualify for the exception.” Slip op. at 10-11. Furthermore, it “respectfully suggest[ed] that the CAAF resolve the tension between Carter and Hoffmann in favor of Hoffmann and the plain language of MIL. R. EVID. 311(c)(3).” Slip op. at 20 (emphasis added).
The JAG’s certification of this issue – that the Government Division won at the CCA – is unusual, but not unprecedented. The Navy JAG previously certified an issue at the request of the defense as recently as 2016. See Howell v. United States, 75 M.J. 386 (C.A.A.F. 2016) (CAAFlog case page).