Could a broader "good faith" clause save police cases tainted by technicalities?

The Knoxville News is offering a profile of some upcoming state supreme court action which might serve as a useful example for the rest of the nation. At issue is an old chestnut which I’ve been bothered by for a very long time. It involves criminal cases where evidence is considered “tainted” if all the proper steps aren’t taken when the police obtain it, often resulting in clearly guilty perpetrators being allowed to go free. But in some instances, the courts are allowed to make exceptions for “good faith” errors and admit such flawed evidence.

One of the cases that they are reviewing in Tennessee this month is a doozy and it has to do with a convicted rapist and known murder who goes by the name of Thomas Dee “Zoo Man” Huskey.

The most high-profile example of that in Tennessee came a few years ago when murder charges against Knox County’s only confessed serial killer – Thomas Dee “Zoo Man” Huskey – were dropped because the search warrant used to discover incriminating evidence was legally flawed. The fault in that case rested not with investigators but the issuing court. But the search was still unconstitutional, and courts ruled it couldn’t be used. That, in turn, forced the dismissal of the murder charges. Huskey remains in prison – for now – on a series of rapes.

Under the federal good faith exception, the case against Huskey might have been spared. The federal exception is broad, allowing judges discretion to decide if law enforcers were intentionally violating a suspect’s rights or believed they were following the law and had taken all steps required for a legally sound warrant.

But Tennessee’s high court, then leaning Democratic, made no move to adopt that broad exception.

You can read the full history of this debacle in justice at the Knoxville News-Sentinel archives. Huskey essentially confessed to having raped, tortured, strangled and murdered at least four prostitutes in the 90s. (Though he blamed it on an “alternate personality” of his.) Police found the ropes he used and jewelry he had stolen from some of the victims in his house. But because the search warrant they had was issued by a city judicial commissioner instead of a judge the evidence was refused in court. He was never convicted of the murders because of that. He is doing time for the rapes, but he’ll be up for parole soon and will eventually be released.

This is obviously one of the most egregious examples, but the courts seem to be filled with cases where people wind up beating the rap because of the broader concept of the so-called “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. What I’d be more interested in seeing would be a national discussion of if and when these “good faith” exceptions could be put in place.

It’s admittedly hard to draw the line between a police fishing expedition and a case of genuine accidental discovery of important information, but this may be one of those situations where the courts need to rely more on the nearly extinct concept of common sense. We obviously need to root out and eliminate incidents of officers fabricating or planting evidence to obtain bogus convictions (we’re talking to you, Baltimore) but the process for obtaining and processing evidence seems entirely too burdensome at times. If the cops pull a guy over for suspected drunk driving and happen to see a stick of dynamite jutting out from under the driver’s seat, shouldn’t they be allowed to ask questions and seize it if need be? Apparently not in all cases, though one might imagine that if a drunk with a car is dangerous, a drunk with some dynamite might be doubly so.

The point is, there’s got to be a way to stick with the actual intent of our Fifth Amendment rights while allowing officers acting in good faith and discovering evidence of wrongdoing to actually do their jobs.

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