New opinion — another search-warrant suppression decision

Here’s how the first paragraph of today’s lone published opinion summarizes the issue:

We recently confronted the question of whether suppression is required when a law enforcement officer obtains a valid search warrant but mistakenly interprets a judge’s sealing order as prohibiting him from showing the list of items to be seized to the person whose property is being searched. See United States v. Franz, 772 F.3d 134 (3d Cir. 2014). This case presents the related question that arises when, as a result of a sealing order, the list of items to be seized is inadvertently omitted from the warrant when it is executed.

From there, things get a bit murkier. The court held that the exclusionary rule did not require suppression of the evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment because the officer’s mistake wasn’t at least gross negligence. This despite prior CA3 precedent that this same mistake usually is at least grossly negligent, and despite the fact that the officer here had extensive experience.

So why was this officer not grossly negligent? Because (1) the prosecution did not really benefit from the mistake, and (2) the mistake was isolated. Neither rationale makes any sense to me.  What does benefit-to-the-prosecution have to do with whether the officer’s error was negligent?  Sounds more like a backdoor deliberateness requirement to me. And why are rare mistakes less negligent? The court says, “Only if mistakes of this nature recur with some frequency will a criminal defendant be in a position to argue that the calculus has changed,” but that seems exactly backwards. A mistake no one else is making is more negligent, not less.

[Update: on reflection, my original post was off-target. The panel’s reasoning is well-grounded in recent Supreme Court 4th Amendment jurisprudence. My quarrel is with that binding precedent, not today’s decision.]

Anyway, interesting case, and a well-written opinion even if I don’t buy the reasoning.

The case is United States v. Wright. Opinion by Fuentes, joined by Ambro and Nygaard. The case was decided without argument.