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United States v. Debruhl

April 22, 2010


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, (CF2-982-09) (Hon. Gerald I. Fisher, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren, Senior Judge

Argued February 4, 2010

Before REID and KRAMER, Associate Judges, and FERREN, Senior Judge.

This case presents the question whether the federal "exclusionary rule" should be applied retroactively to a pending case after the Supreme Court has issued a decision expanding Fourth Amendment protection that would benefit the defendant if the rule applies.

At the time of appellee Debruhl's arrest for a traffic violation, New York v. Belton,*fn1 as commonly interpreted, allowed the police to search the passenger compartment of an automobile without a warrant, and virtually without restriction, when incident to a lawful arrest. Before Debruhl's trial, however, in Arizona v. Gant,*fn2 the Supreme Court narrowed Belton by precluding warrantless searches of an automobile after the occupants had been removed and secured with handcuffs, and thus no longer remained a threat to police safety or to preservation of evidence. The parties agree that Gant's revised interpretation of the Fourth Amendment applies retroactively to all cases "not yet final."*fn3 Therefore, because Debruhl, like Gant, had been removed from his car and handcuffed before the arresting officers conducted their search, it is undisputed that the search of Debruhl's car was unconstitutional. As a consequence, argues Debruhl, the evidence seized from his car -- cocaine and related drug paraphernalia -- must be suppressed under the traditional exclusionary rule.

To the contrary, says the government, the evidence is admissible under the "good-faith" exception to the exclusionary rule because of the officers' reasonable, objective reliance on "settled law" -- on the Belton line of cases -- while conducting their search before Gant was decided. We cannot agree. As interpreted in this jurisdiction and in several federal circuits, Belton did not reflect "settled law" on which police officers could reasonably rely in conducting the warrantless search on the facts of this case. We therefore agree with the trial court's decision to reject the good-faith exception and suppress the evidence seized from Debruhl's car. Accordingly, we affirm.


On January 11, 2009, Metropolitan Police Department officers observed appellee Lorenzo Ali Debruhl driving an Oldsmobile with its lights off between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. in the 900 block of Hamilton Street, N.E. Officers Cepeda and Eglund decided to conduct a traffic stop of the car and ran a check of its license plate. While the officers were asking for Debruhl's driver's license and registration, their inquiry on the license plate came back showing no record or listing for the tags. Upon checking the registration provided by Debruhl, the officers found that it matched the license plate but not the car. A subsequent check of the vehicle identification number revealed that the car was unregistered. Officer Eglund asked Debruhl to step out of the car, placed him under arrest, then handcuffed him. Debruhl was escorted by Officer Cepeda to a spot behind the car while Officer Eglund searched the passenger compartment. During the search, the officer recovered a brown paper bag from under the driver's seat. Inside the bag were a pair of gloves, a digital scale, razor blades, an unspecified amount of currency, and "a clear plastic bag containing a white rock substance" that field-tested positive for cocaine.

A grand jury indicted Debruhl on one count of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute,*fn4 and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia.*fn5 Before trial, Debruhl filed a motion to suppress the drugs and drug paraphernalia, and the motion was heard on September 11, 2009. Although the trial court credited the testimony of Officer Cepeda that the search had been made incident to Debruhl's arrest, the court inquired of counsel whether the Supreme Court's recent Gant decision required it to suppress the evidence as the product of a search that violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Gant case grew out of the search of a car incident to an arrest for a traffic offense on August 25, 1999.*fn6 The suspect, Gant, had been handcuffed and secured in a squad car while the police searched his car and located a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the back seat.*fn7 Gant filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search was unauthorized under the Fourth Amendment because, being handcuffed and stowed in the squad car, he had not posed a threat to the officers and, further, because his stop for a traffic offense did not authorize a search for evidence.*fn8 The trial court rejected these arguments, but the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed, suppressing the evidence. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the suppression order in an opinion issued on July 25, 2007, stressing that once the scene had been secured, New York v. Belton did not justify a search of the car incident to an arrest to protect officer safety or preserve destructible evidence.*fn9

Arizona sought review in the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari on February 25, 2008. Oral arguments were held on October 7, 2008, and the decision came down on April 21, 2009, little more than three months after Debruhl's arrest and search. In Gant, the Supreme Court affirmed the Arizona Supreme Court ruling: with Gant handcuffed and held in the squad car, there had been no risk to police officer safety nor any need to search the car for evidence related to his arrest for a traffic offense. This decision appeared to be at odds with the traditional understanding of the Court's bright-line rule in Belton, permitting indiscriminate search of a vehicle's passenger compartment incident to a lawful arrest.

During discussion of Debruhl's suppression motion, the government conceded that Gant applied retroactively;*fn10 Debruhl's Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The government added, however, that despite the unlawful search, the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule should apply because the officers had done nothing wrong.*fn11 They had reasonably relied on Belton's bright-line rule (as interpreted by this court) in conducting the search, and thus suppression of the evidence would not serve the principal purpose of the rule: to deter police misconduct.*fn12

After discussion of Gant and relevant case law, the trial court ruled that the good-faith exception did not apply, and that the exclusionary rule accordingly survived the government's challenge. The court granted the defense motion and suppressed the evidence of drugs and drug paraphernalia on September 24, 2009. The government then filed this pretrial appeal.*fn13


Before addressing the government's argument based on the good-faith exception, we deal briefly with Debruhl's argument -- adopted by the trial court -- that under Supreme Court authority retroactive application ofa Fourth Amendment ruling includes application of the exclusionary rule.

Because no one disputes that Gant's Fourth Amendment ruling applies retroactively to Debruhl -- that is, no one questions that the search of Debruhl's car and seizure of evidence from it were unconstitutional -- the exclusionary rule, says Debruhl, is inherent in the Fourth Amendment and flows retroactively as well. To the contrary, replies the government, the exclusionary rule no longer is considered an "essential part"*fn14 of the Fourth Amendment "right to privacy,"*fn15 and thus retroactive applicability of the Fourth Amendment does not necessarily imply retroactive application of the exclusionary rule, without exception; these issues are separate.*fn16

Debruhl relies primarily on United States v. Johnson*fn17 where the Court applied, retroactively, to a case on direct appeal, the Fourth Amendment rule announced earlier in Payton v. New York,*fn18 and affirmed the reversal of Johnson's conviction and suppression of evidence unlawfully seized from him. The government had offered an "objective" good-faith exception to retroactive application of Payton, formulated in a way that the Court characterized as "an absurdity."*fn19 The government, however, was contending against retroactive application of the Fourth Amendment decision itself, not merely against retroactive application of the exclusionary rule; the government made no effort to separate the exclusion remedy from the Fourth Amendment right.*fn20 As a result, the defendant received the benefit of the rule without a contest over it, and thus Debruhl cannot claim that Johnson necessarily precludes the government from presenting a "good-faith exception" argument for admission of the evidence seized from his car.

Gant presents a closer question, as language from both the Court's opinion and the principal dissent suggest that both sides assumed suppression would follow from retroactive application of the Court's decision.*fn21 That said, none of the opinions in Gant expressly acknowledged, let alone addressed, that assumption. We are therefore left to deal with the issue anew in connection with the good-faith exception.

In doing so, it is important to keep in mind that we are considering an "exception." The government does not dispute that, if the good-faith exception is not satisfied, the exclusionary rule will apply to a defendant whose Fourth Amendment rights have been violated, and all unlawfully seized evidence will be suppressed. In short, absent the exception, retroactive application of the Fourth Amendment will include retroactive application of the exclusionary rule as well.


The government argues for the good-faith exception based on the police officers' reliance on the Belton line of cases allegedly reflecting "settled law" at the time of Debruhl's arrest. Three central questions are presented: First, what exactly is the good-faith exception? Second, in what situations does the good-faith exception apply? Third, assuming that the good-faith exception could be available here, did the Belton line of cases reflect law that was "settled" enough to justify reasonable reliance on it by the officers who searched Debruhl's car?

We take up the first question. In United States v. Leon,*fn22 a police officer relied on a search warrant that had been issued by a state Superior Court judge but later was found to have lacked probable cause. The Supreme Court, applying what it called a "good faith" exception*fn23 to the exclusionary rule, rejected the ruling of the trial court (sustained by the court of appeals) that suppressed the evidence seized. The Court justified admission of the evidence because of the officer's "objectively reasonable" reliance on the subsequently invalidated warrant.*fn24 Three years later, in Illinois v. Krull,*fn25 the Court extended Leon's ruling to a police officer's warrantless administrative search conducted in reasonable, good-faith reliance on a statute later declared unconstitutional. And less than a decade thereafter, in Arizona v. Evans,*fn26 the Court applied the exception to an officer who had "objectively reasonably" relied on mistaken information in a court database indicating that an arrest warrant was outstanding. Most recently, in Herring v. United States,*fn27 the Court invoked the "good-faith" exception when an officer reasonably believed that there was an outstanding arrest warrant in a neighboring county, but his belief, it turned out, had been wrong because of a police employee's negligent bookkeeping error.

In this latest iteration of the good-faith exception in Herring, the Court rejected its earlier characterization of the exclusionary rule in Mapp v. Ohio as an inherent Fourth Amendment right.*fn28 Instead, the Court emphasized that the rule "applies only where it 'results in appreciable deterrence'" of police misconduct,*fn29 meaning that "the benefits of deterrence must outweigh the costs," principally the cost of "letting guilty and possibly dangerous defendants ...

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