United States v. Earl Whittley Davis, No. 09-4890

Decided: August 16, 2012

Davis was convicted of various federal offenses arising from the armed robbery of an armored car employee, the murder of that employee, and a subsequent carjacking. Davis challenges the use of DNA evidence against him at trial, and the exclusion of expert testimony proffered by him in an attempt to undermine an eyewitness identification. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the District Court.

After the string of events leading to his indictment, but before trial, Davis filed a motion to suppress the use of all DNA evidence against him. Davis alleged that his DNA profile had been obtained by police and entered into the local police department DNA database in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The District Court declined to rule on the motion to suppress immediately, but after a jury found Davis guilty of the charges, the District Court denied the motion to suppress, prompting Davis’ appeal.

Davis alleged three separate Fourth Amendment violations relating to police collection and retention of his DNA: (1) the seizure of his clothing from the hospital room and its subsequent search; (2) the extraction of his DNA profile and testing in connection with a separate murder investigation; and (3) the retention of his DNA profile in the local police DNA database. The Court of Appeals addressed each of these arguments and found that there no Fourth Amendment violation in the seizure of the bag containing Davis’ clothing at the hospital, that the subsequent search of that bag was not unlawful since its contents were a forgone conclusion, and that there was a Fourth amendment violation in the extraction of Davis’ DNA profile from his clothing and the retention of that DNA profile in the local database.

While the extraction and retention of Davis’ DNA profile constituted Fourth Amendment violations, the Court concluded that the “good faith exception” to the exclusionary rule applied to both violations, such that the DNA evidence was not required to be excluded at trial.

The Court then addressed Davis’ argument that the District Court erred in excluding the testimony of his expert. Davis’ expert intended to testify that the lineup procedure used to obtain an eyewitness identification of Davis did not meet the good practices guidelines of the American Psychology-Law Society, and to other factors that can result in a misidentification. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling that the testimony was not “scientific knowledge” that would be of benefit to the jury, and thus, was not admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 403, due to the low probative value of the testimony — based on the availability of significant other evidence of guilt — which was heavily outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusing of the issues or misleading the jury. The Court noted that even if the testimony was improperly excluded, it was harmless error.

In summary, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the lower court, finding that despite the noted Fourth Amendment violations, the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied, such that the DNA evidence at issue was not required to be excluded at trial, and that the exclusion of Davis’ proffered expert testimony was proper.

Judge Davis, dissenting:

The dissent disagreed with the majority’s application of the plain view exception to justify the seizure of the bag from the hospital and the subsequent search of the bag, and the majority’s refusal to apply the exclusionary rule. The dissent opined that the seizure and search of the bag was a constitutional violation of Davis’ privacy interests, and that the majority’s use of a “good faith exception” to the exclusionary rule was improper. The dissent would have vacated the judgment, reversed the denial of Davis’ motion to suppress the DNA evidence, and remanded the case to the lower court.

Full Opinion

– Kassandra Moore

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