Gavel and handcuffs

Minnesota Provides Stronger Search and Seizure Protections Than Fourth Amendment

A recent decision demonstrates the importance of state constitutions providing their own bases for remedies, not just protecting rights.


State constitutions protect rights independently from the U.S. Constitution. But as Marbury v. Madison declares, for every right there should also be a remedy. An opinion this month from the Minnesota Supreme Court reminds us that not only do state constitutions protect rights separately from the federal version, they can provide separate — and stronger — remedies as well.

The remedy at issue in State v. Malecha is the exclusionary rule, which bars the use of evidence in a criminal prosecution that has been collected in an unconstitutional manner. Minnesota’s constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures like the Fourth Amendment does. The text of Article I, Section 10, is identical to the Fourth Amendment (other than a potentially consequential semicolon). Yet that hasn’t prevented the state supreme court from interpreting the section to provide a higher level of protection, both about the underlying right (to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures) and the remedy when the state violates that right.

On March 7, 2021, police in Faribault, Minnesota, arrested Rebecca Malecha based on an outstanding warrant. In the subsequent search they found a controlled substance, for which she was prosecuted. The problem was that the outstanding warrant was no longer valid. Due to a clerical error, however, the court staff never told law enforcement. Thus, her arrest was unlawful, but not because of anything the police intentionally did. Normally an unlawful search should trigger the exclusionary rule and the suppression of incriminating evidence. But here the state argued the fruits of the search were admissible under the rule’s “good faith” exception.

Connoisseurs of criminal procedure will know that the U.S. Supreme Court has held for over 100 years that exclusion of evidence is a standard remedy for an unlawful search. The whole point of the exclusionary rule is to deter unconstitutional conduct. In turn, the justification for the good faith exception is that if the police act responsibly but it turns out their actions were unlawful, throwing the resulting evidence out would not incentivize them to act any differently in the future but would nevertheless harm the public by letting a guilty person walk free. A classic example is the foundational case United States v. Leon, where police relied on a warrant that looked valid on its face but was later declared to lack probable cause.

Under the federal Constitution, the state in Malacha would likely have had the better argument. In Arizona v. Evans, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case exceedingly like Malecha: police arrested the defendant based on a warrant that, due to a court administrative error, they did not know had been quashed. The court found the good faith exception applied.

What about the Minnesota Constitution? In Malecha, the Minnesota Supreme Court made clear that it applies its “independent judgment” in interpreting the state constitution not only when it comes to rights but also remedies: “The mandate applies equally in determining whether a constitutional remedy, like exclusion, is available.” And the court explained that while it has often looked to federal cases for guidance on applying Minnesota’s search and seizure provision — even if those cases aren’t controlling — the good faith exception is one where Minnesota’s independent streak has particularly stood out.

The court has long applied the exclusionary rule to the provision. But only once has it also applied a version of the good faith exception. That case, State v. Lindquist, concerned officers relying on binding Minnesota precedent permitting a warrantless blood draw of a driver who refused a breath test. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that precedent in Missouri v. McNeely, the Minnesota Supreme Court nevertheless allowed the blood draw to be used because exclusion “deters no police misconduct and imposes substantial social costs.” The Lindquist court was careful, however, to limit this application to only when binding appellate precedent legitimates officer actions and is subsequently overturned.

In Malecha, the court emphasized the uniqueness of Lindquist, noting a number of other times it had refused to apply a good faith exception. And it rejected the state’s argument that the good faith exception should apply whenever the police are not at fault. In Malecha’s own situation “the constitutional violation was closely connected to the government error,” of failing to update the warrant records. Concerns about error thus are not limited to police errors but other arms of the government, including court clerks. Deterrence concerns should include those employees’ conduct: “Applying the exclusionary rule here establishes that court employees, not only law enforcement officers, are held to account for errors that result in constitutional violations.” And the court isn’t alone here. By one count, 17 state supreme courts have rejected the good faith exception.

Beyond the good faith issue, the court’s recognition of its dual role in securing state constitutional rights and state constitutional remedies raises the question of remedies beyond the exclusionary rule. For example, the court has long left dormant whether there is a constitutional cause of action for violations of the Minnesota Constitution, akin to what the supreme courts of Michigan and Nevada have recently recognized. It squarely did so in 1944 in Thiede v. Town of Scandia Valley and impliedly did so in in 1991 in Wegner v. Milwaukee Mutual Insurance Company. But as those cases have aged lower Minnesota courts have rejected similar state constitutional remedies for damages. Minnesota has a remedies clause that unreservedly guarantees: “Every person is entitled to a certain remedy in the laws for all injuries or wrongs which he may receive.” Perhaps the “independent judgment” in Malecha can soon come to bear on these other remedies.

Anthony Sanders is the director of the Center for Judicial Engagement at the Institute for Justice and the author of the book Baby Ninth Amendments: How Americans Embraced Unenumerated Rights and Why It Matters.

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