The Inevitable Discovery Exception to the Exclusionary Rule under the United States Constitution

Two important exceptions to exclusionary rules under the federal constitution were adopted by the United States Supreme Court within a month of each other in 1984: (1) the inevitable discovery exception in Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984), and (2) the independent source exception in Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796 (1984); see also the later case of Murray v. United States, 487 U.S. 533 (1988). These two exceptions continue to be litigated. This post will discuss the inevitable discovery exception, and my next post will discuss the independent source exception.

Nix v. Williams. Following the disappearance of a 10-year-old girl in Des Moines, Iowa, the defendant was arrested and arraigned in Davenport, Iowa. Officers informed the defendant’s attorney that they would drive him back to Des Moines without questioning him, but during the trip one of the officers began a conversation with him that ultimately resulted in his making incriminating statements and directing the officers to the child’s body. A systematic search of the area that was being conducted with the aid of 200 volunteers and that had begun before the defendant made his statements was terminated when he guided the officers to the body. The defendant was convicted of the child’s murder, but his conviction was later reversed by the United States Supreme Court in Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387 (1977), when the Court ruled that an officer had obtained the statements in violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

On retrial, the State did not offer the defendant’s statements into evidence, nor did it seek to show that the defendant had directed the officers to the child’s body. However, admitted into evidence were the condition of her body when it was found, articles and photos of her clothing, and the results of post mortem medical and chemical tests on the body. The trial court found that the State had proven by a preponderance of evidence that, if the search had not been suspended and the defendant had not led the officers to the victim, her body would have been discovered within a short time in essentially the same condition as it was actually found. The defendant was convicted again of the murder of the child. However, a federal appellate court later reversed the conviction. That court assumed that there was an inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule, and the exception required proof both that (1) officers did not act in bad faith in committing the constitutional violation, and (2) the evidence involving the child’s body would have been discovered absent a constitutional violation. The court then found that the State failed to show that the officers did not act in bad faith (therefore, it was unnecessary for the court to decide the second issue) and reversed the defendant’s conviction.

The United States Supreme Court granted the State’s petition to review the federal appellate court’s ruling, and it reversed that ruling. The Court noted that although its prior case law on the exclusionary rule involved Fourth Amendment violations, the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine also had been applied to both Fifth and Sixth Amendment violations. The court then stated that the prosecution should not be put in a better position than it would have been if no illegality had occurred. On the other hand, the prosecution should not be put in a worse position simply because there was some law enforcement error or misconduct. It noted that when challenged evidence has an independent source (e.g., properly-obtained evidence was enough to show probable cause to support a search warrant after setting aside improperly obtained evidence set out in the warrant), exclusion of evidence would put the prosecution in a worse position than they would have been in the absence of a violation.

The Court stated that the two doctrines (independent source and inevitable discovery) are functionally similar. Thus, while the independent sources exception would not justify the admission of evidence in this case (i.e., there was no independent source that led to the discovery of the body; the unconstitutionally-obtained statements did), its rationale is wholly consistent with and justifies the adoption of the inevitable discovery exception. If the prosecution can establish by a preponderance of evidence that the information inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means (in this case, if the volunteers’ search for the child had continued), then the exclusionary rule’s deterrence rationale has so little basis that the evidence should be admissible. The Court rejected the requirement imposed on the inevitable discovery exception by the federal court of appeals that the prosecution must prove the absence of bad faith by the officers in committing the constitutional violation. It noted, among other reasons for its rejection, that an officer who is faced with the opportunity to obtain evidence illegally will rarely, if ever, be in a position to calculate whether the evidence sought would inevitably be discovered.

Concerning the issue whether the child’s body would have been inevitably discovered, the Court reviewed the evidence and agreed with lower court judges’ findings that it was clear that the volunteer search teams were approaching the location of the body, they would have resumed the search had the defendant not led the officers to the body, and thus the body inevitably would have been found.

North Carolina appellate court cases. The most significant inevitable discovery case is State v. Garner, 331 N.C. 491 (1992). After the arrest of defendant Garner for murder and the recovery of a .25 caliber Beretta pistol (the alleged murder weapon), officers obtained a search warrant to search the defendant’s residence and seized (1) a Beretta box showing model 950BS, serial number BR88945V from Jim’s Pawn Shop; (2) a receipt from Jim’s Pawn Shop showing a purchase on December 20, 1986, of a Beretta PPGGG Model 950BS with the same serial number; and (3) five .25 caliber bullets. As a result of the seizure of this evidence, officers went to Jim’s Pawn Shop and obtained (1) a copy of the Beretta pistol purchase receipt that they had seized under the search warrant, and (2) the defendant’s ATF (federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau) application to purchase the Beretta weapon.

The trial judge ruled that the search warrant was invalid because probable cause did not exist to search the residence; therefore, the evidence found at the residence was inadmissible at trial. However, the judge also ruled that the evidence obtained from Jim’s Pawn Shop was admissible under the inevitable discovery exception to the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule: the judge found by a preponderance of evidence that (1) it is routine procedure in firearms cases to check PIN (Police Information Network) and ATF documents and (2) “but for” the fact that the information was readily ascertainable by the pawn receipt officers found in the illegal search of the defendant’s home, the officers would have conducted a routine check and discovered by lawful means at Jim’s Pawn Shop the duplicate Beretta pistol purchase receipt and the defendant’s ATF application to purchase the weapon.

The court adopted under the state constitution the inevitable discovery exception to the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule that was recognized in Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984). The court rejected the defendant’s contention that the State always must show that an independent investigation (that would have inevitably discovered the evidence by lawful means) must have been ongoing when the illegality occurred that resulted in the discovery of the evidence. Instead, the court adopted a case-by-case approach, “recognizing that the particular facts of any given case will determine whether, absent other means, proof of an ongoing, independent investigation is necessary to show inevitability.” The court also ruled that (1) the State’s standard of proof in proving the inevitable discovery is preponderance of evidence, rejecting the clear and convincing evidence standard; (2) the officer’s bad faith in conducting the illegal search was irrelevant in applying the inevitable discovery exception; and (3) the court’s suppression of the primary evidence (evidence seized under the invalid search warrant) was not necessary in applying the inevitable discovery exception. The court reviewed the evidence in this case and affirmed the trial judge’s ruling that the inevitable discovery exception applied to admit the evidence found at Jim’s Pawn Shop.

Other cases of interest include:

  • State v. Pope, 333 N.C. 106 (1992) (although the defendant’s admissions, obtained in violation of Arizona v. Roberson, 486 U.S. 675 (1988), led to the discovery of the handgun used in a murder, the court ruled that the handgun and the tests performed on it were admissible under the inevitable discovery exception).
  • State v. Phelps, 358 N.C. 142 (2004) (the court reversed the decision of the court of appeals, 156 N.C. App. 119 (2003), for the reasons stated in the dissenting opinion, which said that because the State did not raise or offer evidence concerning the inevitable discovery doctrine at the trial court suppression hearing, it was improper for the court of appeals to determine that the cocaine would have been admissible under the doctrine).
  • State v. Pigford, ___ N.C. App. ___, 789 S.E.2d 857 (2016) (the court granted a new trial based on the trial court’s error in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress; the court noted that the State had not raised the inevitable discovery doctrine at the original trial, but left open whether the State may raise the issue before the trial court at the new trial).
  • State v. Larkin, 237 N.C. App. 335 (2014) (the inevitable discovery exception justified a search of the defendant’s vehicle that had previously been illegally seized by another police department; the evidence showed that an officer of a different police department in an unrelated investigation had obtained a search warrant for the vehicle based on untainted evidence, and he would have inevitably found and searched the vehicle pursuant to the search warrant).
  • State v. Wells, 225 N.C. App. 487 (2013) (the defendant was convicted of soliciting a child by computer and attempted indecent liberties on a child, and the court ruled that the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s laptop would have been inevitably discovered; the State did not present any evidence to support the trial court’s ruling).
  • State v. McKinney, 174 N.C. App. 138 (2005) (the State could not raise inevitable discovery doctrine in court of appeals when it did not present that theory in the trial court).
  • State v. Harris, 157 N.C. App. 647 (2003) (the court ruled that the inevitable discovery doctrine supported the officer’s seizure of keys from the defendant’s pocket and cocaine from a truck even if the officer’s knowledge of the keys resulted from a statement obtained through a Miranda violation).
  • State v. Vick, 130 N.C. App. 207 (1998) (the defendant’s statement to the officers during the execution of the search warrant, that cocaine was in a refrigerator, was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights and thus was inadmissible; however, the cocaine seized in the refrigerator was admissible under the inevitable discovery doctrine because the officers would have inevitably found it during the execution of the search warrant).

4 thoughts on “The Inevitable Discovery Exception to the Exclusionary Rule under the United States Constitution”

  1. Interesting recent case on this doctrine out of the 4th Circuit — United States v. Bullette, No. No. 15-4408, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6886 (4th Cir. Apr. 20, 2017).


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