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Making the exclusionary rule pay?

This is the third time I've written about Yanko Mansaray.  The first was back in November 2010, when I included in my weekly summary of 8th District decisions the reversal of his conviction for drug possession.  The second was three months later, when I mentioned the State's appeal from that decision, in the context of an argument by the State urging limitations on the exclusionary rule.

This time it's about him getting money.

Mansaray's current saga began in December of 2006, when US Marshalls showed up at his door.  They were actually looking for a guy named Williams, but figured that the arrest warrant they had for Williams, coupled with information that Williams was staying at Mansaray's house, gave them the right to search it.  They did, finding over 100 times the bulk amount of ecstasy pills, plus some guns.

Mansaray filed a motion to suppress, but that was overruled; Mansaray was convicted after a jury trial and sentenced to 13 years in prison.  Last year, in State v. Mansaray, the 8th District reversed, finding that the arrest warrant for Williams didn't give the marshalls the right to enter Mansaray's house.  The State appealed, but that went nowhere; the law's pretty well settled that an arrest warrant allows the police to enter the home of a third party only if the police have a reasonable belief that the person named in the warrant lives at the residence and is in fact there.

It's axiomatic in our criminal justice system that it's better to let ten guity men go free than to convict one innocent person, but what happens when that innocent person is convicted?  The Ohio legislature addressed that problem back in 1986, enacting RC 2743.48, which provides compensation for people wrongfully convicted and sent to prison.  In its initial version, it was intended to do just that:  someone seeking compensation had the burden of showing by a preponderance of evidence that he was actually innocent of the crime.  Then in 2003 the legislature amended the statute to allow compensation where "subsequent to sentencing and during or subsequent to imprisonment, an error in procedure resulted in the individual's release."  And last week, in Mansaray v. State, the 8th District decided that this provision allowed compensation for the time he spent in prison on the second case.

Let's take another look at the statute.  "Subsequent to sentencing and during or subsequent to imprisonment, an error in procedure resulted in the individual's release" could mean one of two things:

  • The error occurred after sentencing and imprisonment, or
  • The error occurred any time, but wasn't discovered until after sentencing and imprisonment, and resulted in the defendant's release

At first blush, the first interpretation seems more consistent with the plain reading of the statute.  But that creates a problem:  how could a procedural error occur after sentencing result in the defendant's release?  The opinion notes that the State could come up with only one example -- "the discovery of exculpatory DNA evidence" -- and concludes that the legislature could not have solely intended to mean this when it amended the statute.  Frankly, I'm not sold on the idea that the discovery of exculpatory DNA evidence would be an "error in procedure," and not at all convinced that the statute was intended to cover that.  Current statutes allow for DNA retesting of  evidence, and if it proved exclupatory, a motion for new trial on the basis of newly-discovered evidence would remedy that.  In any event, the court determines that the "error in procedure" can take place before sentencing, and here that error was the trial court's denial of the motion to suppress.

Again, at first blush I thought that was a bit of a stretch, but it's not completely unprecedented.  The 10th District has twice upheld the application of the statute in somewhat similar circumstances:  a Brady violation at trial in Larkins v. State, and a speedy trial violation in Nelson v. StateLast year in Doss v. State, the 8th District even held that a conviction based upon insufficient evidence might be an "error in procedure," and therefore warrant relief under the statute, in certain circumstances.

The upshot of Larkins, Nelson, Doss, and Mansaray is that innocence is not an absolute requirement for relief under RC 2743.48.  But Mansaray has substantially greater implications.  The guilt of Larkins and Doss was highly debatable, and a reading of Nelson leaves the impression that even his was open to dispute.  There's no getting away, though, from the fact that Yanko Mansaray had an awful lot of drugs in his house when the marshalls came a'knockin'.

We take the exclusionary rule for granted, but it's notable that we're about the only country that imposes it automatically.  In other nations, it's discretionary, with the court balancing the interests of society against concerns of regulating police misconduct.  The latter is the whole basis for our view the exclusionary rule:  the belief that it's the best way of ensuring that the police don't violate the 4th Amendment.

Conservatives have long argued that it's not the only way:  civil remedies and police review boards can accomplish the same task.  That's a hard sell.  Police review boards have never demonstrated an ability to regulate police misconduct, and civil suits for 4th Amendment violations are rare, and successful ones rarer still.  Doctrines like good faith and qualified immunity substantially limit the liability of police officers, and then there's the simple dynamics of the lawsuit:  if the police conduct an illegal search and find nothing, a potential plaintiff's damages are minimal.  On the other hand, if the police find something, you're got a plaintiff who was obviously guilty of something.  It's unlikely a jury would have found Yanko Mansaray, with several previous convictions of drug offenses and now found in possession of enough ecstasy to get half the city high, a particularly sympathetic figure.  But with Mansaray, you now do have an additional, if not alternate, remedy for a bad search.

The effect the ruling is going to have on 4th Amendment law is hard to gauge.  On the one hand, it could make trial judges more inclined to grant motions to suppress if they know that a wrong call will result in the defendant's getting money down the line.  On the other hand, the same thought might lead appellate courts to be less inclined to reverse denials of motion to suppress.

On the third hand, it might not matter.  Mansaray's hardly going to get rich off of this:  compensation is capped at about $43,000 per year, plus lost income and the like.  And unless I miss my guess, there's somebody working right now in the State legislature to amend the statute to ensure that whatever money Mansaray gets, it's going to be the last time someone in his position gets any.

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