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State v. J.R.D.

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

December 20, 2019

J.R.D., Appellee.


          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Sarasota County; Rochelle Curley, Judge.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Linsey Sims-Bohnenstiehl, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellant.

          Howard L. Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Daniel Muller, Assistant Public Defender, Bartow, for Appellee.

          VILLANTI, Judge.

         The State appeals a dispositive order granting the suppression of a small quantity of illicit drugs discovered on J.R.D. following his arrest on an allegedly valid warrant. However, because J.R.D.'s arrest resulted from a combination of human and computer error by the police, the arrest was illegal, and we affirm the trial court's decision to suppress the contraband. We write to explain why suppression was the proper remedy on these facts.

         At the hearing on the motion to suppress, the arresting officer testified that she and another officer came into contact with J.R.D. and his identical twin brother while on routine patrol on December 5, 2017. She stopped both brothers because she believed that at least one of them had an active warrant. The Sarasota County Sheriff's computerized warrant system confirmed the officer's belief concerning the existence of a warrant because it reflected that both boys had active warrants. The officer also contacted the Sheriff's dispatch officer to confirm the existence of the warrants-a procedure consistent with department policy-and the dispatch officer advised that J.R.D. had an active warrant but that his brother did not. Based on the information from the warrant system and the confirmation from the dispatch officer, the officer arrested J.R.D. and subsequently discovered contraband. The officer then put J.R.D. in her car to take him to jail.

         However, as the officer was on her way to the jail with J.R.D., she learned that the information from both the warrant system and the dispatch officer was incorrect and that J.R.D. had no active warrants at that time. Instead, only J.R.D.'s brother had a current active warrant. Nevertheless, the officer proceeded to the jail with J.R.D., and the State brought charges against him based on his possession of the contraband. J.R.D. moved to suppress the contraband based on the illegal arrest. The trial court granted the motion, concluding that the evidence should be suppressed as a product of an illegal arrest. The State now appeals this dispositive order.

         In reviewing an order on a motion to suppress, "we accept the historic facts as found by the trial court but review the legal issues de novo." McClamma v. State, 138 So.3d 578, 581-82 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014). In this case, the State concedes that the wrong person was arrested and that the discovery of contraband pursuant to that arrest was thus illegal. Hence, the only question is a legal one, i.e., whether the trial court properly applied the exclusionary rule to suppress the evidence found as a result of the illegal arrest. See Bowen v. State, 685 So.2d 942, 944 (Fla. 5th DCA 1996) ("When an individual is unreasonably seized, any evidence obtained as a result of the seizure must be suppressed."). As to that question, the State argues that the remedy of suppression was inapplicable to this case because the police conduct at issue constituted nothing more than simple negligence and the arresting officer acted in good faith. In contrast, J.R.D. argues that the State did not prove that the errors arose from only simple negligence and that because the underlying errors were attributable to police conduct, suppression of the evidence seized is the only proper remedy. Like the trial court did, we agree with J.R.D.

         We begin with the proposition that the Constitution itself does not provide a remedy when contraband is found during a seizure or search conducted in violation of the Fourth Amendment. To avoid allowing constitutional rights to be ignored with impunity, the Supreme Court created a remedy in the form of the exclusionary rule. See Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 393 (1914) ("If letters and private documents can thus be seized and held and used in evidence against a citizen accused of an offense, the protection of the 4th Amendment, declaring his right to be secure against such searches and seizures, is of no value, and, so far as those thus placed are concerned, might as well be stricken from the Constitution."), overruled on other grounds by Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961). "The exclusionary rule operates as a judicially created remedy designed to safeguard against future violations of Fourth Amendment rights through the rule's general deterrent effect." Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1, 10 (1995). Under this rule, the police conduct resulting in the illegal seizure need not be nefarious or intentional for the remedy of suppression to apply; suppression is also appropriate to "deter deliberate, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct, or in some circumstances recurring or systemic negligence." Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 144 (2009).

         However, an exception to the exclusionary rule applies when the police exercised complete good faith and the underlying error was not attributable to police conduct.

The deterrent purpose of the exclusionary rule necessarily assumes that the police have engaged in willful, or at the very least negligent, conduct which has deprived the defendant of some right. By refusing to admit evidence gained as a result of such conduct, the courts hope to instill in those particular investigating officers, or in their future counterparts, a greater degree of care toward the rights of an accused. Where the official action was pursued in complete good faith, however, the deterrence rationale loses much of its force.

United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 919 (1984) (quoting Michigan v. Tucker, 417 U.S. 433, 447 (1974)). In Evans, the Supreme Court reaffirmed this interpretation of the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule, explaining that an error in a police computer system that was caused by court personnel did not warrant application of the exclusionary rule "[b]ecause court clerks . . . have no stake in the outcome of particular criminal prosecutions." 514 U.S. at 15. And as Justice Scalia later explained, "the value of deterrence depends upon the strength of the incentive to commit the forbidden act." Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586, 596 (2006). Therefore, when the mistake is attributable to an officer's reliance in good faith on information provided by other government entities that have no incentive to err, application of the exclusionary rule has no value. Florida courts have followed this logic, agreeing that the exclusion of evidence based on an error not attributable to law enforcement would not further the rule's purpose of deterrence. See, e.g., Shadler v. State, 761 So.2d 279, 285 (Fla. 2000). However, the good faith exception does not apply to mistakes or errors caused by law enforcement personnel. Simply put, "if the error causing the arrest is attributable to law enforcement personnel, then the seized evidence must be suppressed under the exclusionary rule." Id. at 281. No exceptions to that rule apply.

         In the present case, the errors resulting in the illegal arrest of J.R.D. were twofold, and both errors were attributable to at least the negligence of law enforcement personnel. First, according to the arresting officer's testimony, the Sheriff's computerized warrant system incorrectly reflected that J.R.D. had an active warrant for his arrest. A police computer error that results in an erroneous arrest is a valid basis to suppress any evidence obtained as a result of that arrest. See State v. Murphy, 793 So.2d 112, 114 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001); see also State v. White, 660 So.2d 664, 667 (Fla. 1995) ("It is repugnant to the principles of a free society that a person should ever be taken into police custody because of a computer error precipitated by government carelessness." (quoting State v. Evans, 866 P.2d 869, 872 (Ariz. 1994))). The Florida Supreme Court has explained that a computer error is attributable to the police because the accuracy of the information in the system depends entirely on the information entered into it; "junk in equals junk out." White, 660 So.2d at 666. Hence, when the "failure of the police to maintain up-to-date and accurate computer records resulted in an illegal arrest and search," evidence gathered in that search had to be suppressed. Id. at 667; see also Shadler, 761 So.2d at 285 ("With the benefits of more efficient law enforcement mechanisms comes the burden of corresponding constitutional responsibilities." (quoting Evans, 514 U.S. at 17-18 (O'Connor, J, concurring))); Miles v. State, 953 So.2d 778, 780 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007) (concluding that the exclusionary rule applied when the State failed to prove that the computer error was not attributable to law enforcement); Albo v. State, 477 So.2d 1071, 1076 (Fla. 3d DCA 1985) ("Suppressing the fruits of an arrest made on a recalled warrant will deter further misuse of the computerized criminal information ...

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