The “Good-Faith Exception” as Applied to a Motion to Suppress in Arizona

In a recent case before the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One, the court had to decide whether a police officer’s honest mistake before a traffic stop meant the trial court should have suppressed evidence that he found during the stop. The case highlights the leniency that some courts will give to officers based on what is called the “good-faith exception” to normal standards of suppression.

Motion to Suppress

The defendant in this case originally filed a motion to suppress after an officer found him with fentanyl. The lead-up to the defendant’s arrest went as follows: the defendant and an acquaintance were chatting at a local gas station. An officer saw the pair repeatedly enter and exit a car, then they drove off together. Finding their behavior suspicious, the officer radioed dispatch to see if either person had active arrest warrants. Dispatch reported back that while there were no active warrants, the defendant’s acquaintance, who was driving the vehicle, had an invalid driver’s license.

The officer conducted a traffic stop, and he inspected the driver’s license. As it turns out, the driver’s license was valid, and the dispatcher had made a mistake in reporting the opposite. While the officer was still chatting with the pair, a third individual approached the car and informed the group that the defendant had dropped something near the front of the car. As it turned out, this dropped item was the defendant’s bottle of blue pills, later identified as fentanyl.

After the defendant was criminally charged, he asked the trial court to suppress the evidence. The trial court denied his motion.

Good-Faith Exception

The higher court’s job, then, was to review the lower court’s decision on the motion to suppress. In certain circumstances, said the court, it would have made sense to grant the motion, given the fact that the officer did not have a legal reason to stop the car. The driver’s license was, after all, valid.

However, the court found that the dispatcher made an honest mistake in gathering incorrect intel on the driver’s license. Therefore, his actions fell under the “good-faith exception” to the normal suppression standards, and the resulting incriminating evidence was admissible. Overall, this exception can be frustrating for defendants, especially in circumstances where the officer should not have had grounds to conduct a traffic stop in the first place.

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