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The Courts Databases Government Programming Software News IT

Gov't Database Errors Leading To Unconstitutional Searches? 272

Wired is running a story about a case the Supreme Court will be hearing on Tuesday that relates to searches based on erroneous information in government databases. In the case of Herring vs. US 07-513, the defendant was followed and pulled over based on a records indicating he had a warrant out for his arrest. Upon further review, the local county clerk found the records were in error, and the warrant notification should have been removed months prior. Unfortunately for Herring, he had already been arrested and his car searched. Police found a small amount of drugs and a firearm, for which Herring was subsequently prosecuted. Several friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed to argue this case, some calling for "an accuracy obligation on law enforcement agents [PDF] who rely on criminal justice information systems," and others defending such searches as good-faith exceptions [PDF].
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Gov't Database Errors Leading To Unconstitutional Searches?

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  • by elecmahm ( 1194167 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @11:53AM (#25264389)
    My brother-in-law works at Lowe's, and happened to take a weekday off one week, only to find out through a friend that some US Marshall's were there looking for him (w/ shotguns in tow). -- He sought legal counsel immediately (smart!). -- Turns out, there had been a clerical error when he paid a court fee on a rather mundane charge, they mispelled his name in the court system, and confused him with someone who was on the loose for murder charges! (his lawyer filed the necessary paperwork to get them to realize their mistake though). -- If he had been someone who didn't have the money to get a lawyer though, this could have ended much more badly!
  • by lysergic.acid ( 845423 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @11:55AM (#25264417) Homepage

    isn't it customary for the courts to throw out illegally obtained evidence? it's my understanding that this is done so as to discourage prosecutors & law enforcement from doing illegal/warrantless searches.

    if the courts routinely allowed illegally obtained evidence/testimony/etc. to be used, then it would encourage law enforcement professionals to encroach on the rights of individuals if they think it will get a conviction. if you don't throw out confessions obtained through torture, then law enforcement will start using torture to gain confessions--it's the same principle.

    i know that many people hold personal prejudices against drug users, but a corruption of justice is a corruption of justice, regardless of who it happens to. it just happens to drug users and low income individuals more often because they can't defend themselves, and they have more run ins with the law.

    one of my good friends in Chicago was a former heroin addict. he was a really friendly guy and a kind and honest person. however, he started using heroin at a very young age. this inevitably landed him in jail. he's in his late 20's now and has been through the system many times on drug possession charges (never for drug dealing or theft, or anything other than drug possession). and he's recounted to me several occasions where he's been wrongly imprisoned due to clerical error.

    one time in particular he'd just finished serving time for a drug offense (i think it was something like a 6 month sentence), and the very weekend he got out he was picked up again and taken back to jail. he hadn't broken any laws, but the patrol vehicle computer showed that he had an outstanding warrant. apparently the warrant was issued while he was doing time for his last sentence. the warrant was for an offense registered in a different county, and so they didn't realize that he was already in prison. he knew that there'd been a mistake, but he couldn't make bail and ended up having to spend another few weeks in jail until it was shown that he'd been falsely imprisoned and the warrant shouldn't have been issued in the first place.

  • by Toll_Free ( 1295136 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @12:21PM (#25264653)

    The problem is, this wasn't an illegal search and seizure. It isn't entrapment, it isn't any of that.

    Based upon good faith and probable cause, the vehicle was searched.

    I know of a person who had a warrant issued for his arrest for parole violation. Problem was, he HADN'T BEEN RELEASED FROM PRISON YET!!!

    Doesn't matter, as the warrant was issued in good faith. Hard to be released when your showing a warrant out for your arrest. He did another couple months, expired his sentence, and then went to the county and showed his release papers.

    Simple, don't want legal problems, don't fuck up. Bottom line. Not that their isn't a bunch of people wrongfully incarcerated, but the majority DESERVE it.


  • by LifesABeach ( 234436 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @12:31PM (#25264749) Homepage

    I RTFA. Given that this violation is at the constitutional level. The evidence obtained illegally will be thrown out; it may have to go a higher level to do it. In Alabama, guns in cars is "normal", along with fishing rods. As for the "Evidence" found in his car, I'm amazed that law enforcement found so little; for the amount of time, money, and resources spent. To all intents, and purposes, now would be a good time for those involved to say, "I'm sorry", and maybe go find someone like Bin Laden; a real bad guy's bad guy.

    "Dead or Alive, You're Coming With Me" - Robo Cop

  • by Anonymous Brave Guy ( 457657 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @12:46PM (#25264887)

    Your post is an excellent argument for why those who claim more authority than the average citizen should never be allowed to use "good faith" alone to excuse a mistake. With the extra power must come extra responsibility to get things right, and the rule for such people must be "if in doubt, don't". The consequences of any system not biased strongly in that direction are far worse than any individual mistake. It's just like the fundamental principle that it is better to risk letting a guilty man go free, at least for now, than to risk sentencing an innocent man erroneously.

    Thus in cases like this, I think it would be far better if there was an immediate presumption that no evidence or charges at all connected with the inappropriate search ever have legal standing. Moreover, the person or persons responsible for the mistake should by default be personally liable for their illegal actions just as anyone else would be. There may be some good faith defence in the latter case, but good faith should never take precedence over the safeguard that the former offers. Even in the latter case, one must be careful that the benefits of good faith remain proportionate to the mistake, to avoid the risk of authorities erring on the side of "shooting the innocent man" and escaping the penalty for it later.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 05, 2008 @12:54PM (#25264967)

    Mod parent up. The notion of "soverign immunity" of the government is what makes defending rights for criminals so important, because the government has generally held that those who are innocent cannot have "grievances" to petition for redress.

  • by porpnorber ( 851345 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @01:09PM (#25265109)

    I think there's a huge confusion in the way people think about this. The prevailing attitude seems to be that the purpose of law is to make money, and that various traps need to be in place to prevent the police making too much money and unbalancing the game.

    That's not what law is about.

    This person broke the law and was caught. There is no doubt (or no more doubt than usual) that he should be convicted. It is absurd to dismiss any evidence on the basis of how it was obtained—unless the method calls the evidence itself into doubt (entrapment, planted evidence and evidence obtained under torture—which may be very much the same thing—are the obvious examples).

    But at the same time professional malfeasance is a very serious thing. A policeman who breaks the law or a records officer who doesn't bother filing an update or a database programmer who takes a job of this seriousness and screws it up—whatever the cause of the confusion—should be in very serious, spend-time-in-prison, trouble. The situation where both the crook and the crooked cop wind up incarcerated is very far from unacceptable.

    In California, at least, they've already got the message as regards roadworks: penalties for traffic infractions are doubled as you pass the workers. Let's start doubling the penalties for crimes committed in the course of work, and quadrupling them for those acting as officers of the state.

    (Probably help a lot with the economy, too.)

  • by twitter ( 104583 ) * on Sunday October 05, 2008 @01:45PM (#25265471) Homepage Journal

    Some "mistakes" are deliberate [slashdot.org]. We should not let them get away with that.

  • by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @01:47PM (#25265501) Homepage Journal

    If I get pulled over for an incorrect warrant and searched, they wouldn't find drugs and guns in may care except if they were legally obtained. And once they figured out the warrant was bad there would be nothing else for them to do. And I wouldn't be in the news, and I would make even a worse ACLU poster child because nothing happened to me.

    Now what would help is if I was falsely arrested due to a computer glitch then beaten to a pulp in jail while waiting for it to get sorted out. And if they held on to me long enough I'd lose my job too. But that wouldn't even be an ACLU issue, because no rights were really violated (unless it was happening often to the same people or to lots of people). They would have just screwed up and backed off when they fixed the fuck up. But the ancillary bits to the story would be a serious case in civil court.

    Basically it seems the deeper shit you get yourself into, the more likely you'll end up in a situation where your rights are violated. This is one reason the ACLU has a hard time finding a "poster child" that is favorable.

  • by a whoabot ( 706122 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @03:02PM (#25266117)

    "Breaking the law" involves intentionality or at least negligence which is considered to involve intentionality in maybe not a common-sense notion of the term. So your statement '"Oops," isn't a defense if you or I break the law because if it was we would all claim everything we did was accidental' is a strange one.

    If you did break the law and were already determined finally to have broken the law, then you don't have a legal defense anymore, so of course you can't say "Oops" as a legal defense. But if you are accused of breaking some law, "Oops" IS a defense! If I accidentally kill someone, and they accuse me of murder, I can indeed say it was an accident and get off absolutely scott-free if they believe me.

  • by Valdrax ( 32670 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @03:16PM (#25266239)

    Something like 25% of court cases end in a not guilty result. It's estimated that something like 5% of guilty verdicts are in error. If you take away these protections you are denying innocent people a chance to clear themselves.

    I'd like to see a source for your statistics. My law professors say that very few criminal cases get a not guilty result because the prosecutor's office has the option of simply not pursuing a weak case, and I'd *love* to see the methodology used to arrive at a "5% of guilty verdicts are in error" number.

  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @04:52PM (#25266989)

    It's really not a bad choice. Most of the people opposed to the ACLU do so because they don't care to admit that they might be wrong in their interpretation of the constitution. Many of them refuse to admit that there's more than one interpretation of the 2nd amendment that comes from reading it.

    The problem with the ACLU's interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is that in all the other Amendments of the Bill of Rights, the ACLU chooses an interpretation which favors citizens rights over that of the state. But with the 2nd Amendment, the ACLU chooses an interpretation which favors the rights of the state over that of the citizens. As the recent Supreme Court decision pointed out, if the 2nd Amendment really refers to the state's right to maintain a militia, WTF is an Amendment outlining a state's right doing in the Bill of Rights, where all 9 other Amendments outlines rights reserved for the people?

    I actually admire most of the work they do. I agree with their stance of defending even lowlifes if it's a matter of principle over their civil liberties being violated. Anyone will go out on a limb for family or a friend. The true measure of whether you really believe in a principle is whether you'll go out on a limb for someone you don't care about or even hate. But their 2nd Amendment stance is blatantly politically motivated. They would be better off IMHO if they just dropped the facade and admitted it, and carried on defending the other 9 Amendments.

  • by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968 AT gmail DOT com> on Sunday October 05, 2008 @04:59PM (#25267041) Journal

    Uhhh....If you get rid of the ACLU who exactly is going to help you if you get railroaded? It would be different if even the tiniest bit of common sense was used in government these days,but sadly it is not. After all a rickroll can send you to jail now if the troll links it to whichever fake file server the FBI is using ATM to catch the "child molesters" and as we saw with McMartin and the Little Rascals day care cases all it takes is someone to point a finger at you and scream "child molester" and you can spend years of your life rotting in jail.

    So while I agree that the ACLU does defend some seriously scummy people,I for one am GLAD that they do. Because in this age of "get the perv" witch hunts it really doesn't take much for any of us to be labeled a scumbag and have our rights taken away. Of course living in a day and age where folks make "don't tase me bro" jokes and everyday you see yet another police "misuse" of force(torture) I want as many protections between me and them as I can get,thank you very much.

  • by Breakfast Pants ( 323698 ) on Sunday October 05, 2008 @10:55PM (#25269269) Journal

    http://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1GGLS_enUS291&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=aclu+gun+manufacturer [google.com]

    Sorry, I can't find one documented example of the ACLU suing gun manufacturers for manufacturing guns. Take your FUD elsewhere.

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.