Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cert Grant: Are Pre-Existing Identity-Related Governmental Documents, Such as Motor Vehicle Records, Obtained as the Direct Result of Police Action Violative of the Fourth Amendment, Subject to the Exclusionary Rule?

Last month the Supreme Court granted cert to answer that question—a question that has divided courts 'round the land—in Tolentino v. United States, No. 09-11556.

The evidence at issue is Tolentino's driving record, which police obtained by running a computer records check during an allegedly illegal traffic stop.  That record revealed that Tolentino's license was suspended (as it had been on 10 separate occasions), and led to his arrest for "aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the first degree."  The Court of Appeals of New York held, in a divided opinion, that Tolentino's driving record was not suppressible:
The officers learned defendant's identity when they stopped his car; that knowledge permitted the police to run a computer check that led to the retrieval of defendant's DMV records. Under the rationale of Lopez-Mendoza and the above federal circuit court decisions, defendant's DMV records were therefore not suppressible as the fruit of the purportedly illegal stop. In short, "there is no sanction . . . when an illegal arrest only leads to discovery of the man's identity and that merely leads to the official file or other independent evidence[.]"
(citation omitted).
Notably, those "federal circuit court decisions"—including one from our very own Fifth Circuit—are all 1326 cases in which the courts held that an alien's A-file is not a suppressible fruit of a Fourth Amendment violation.  And 1326 cases make up the bulk of the cases Tolentino's cert petition cites when discussing the division of authority over this question.  So you may want to consider dusting off those motions to suppress things like A-files and fingerprint exemplars, as the Court's decision will likely apply to more than just DMV records, outstanding warrants, and the like.
As usual, head over to SCOTUSblog for comprehensive coverage of the case, which will be argued later this term.

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