The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld convictions for cocaine trafficking which were based in large part on evidence of a prior similar transaction.
The Court held that the exclusionary rule does not apply to evidence that was illegally seized in a prior incident as it was not being used to prove the offense charged in the indictment. The ruling appears to be the first time any court in the country has ruled that the exclusionary rule does not apply to prior acts evidence.
Gwinnett County police arrested defendants Betancourt and Hernandez for trafficking cocaine after it was discovered that their vehicle had a hidden compartment containing cocaine with a street value of approximately $125,000.
At trial, the State introduced evidence of a prior similar transaction involving the defendants in North Carolina. In that incident, a traffic stop was conducted and the defendants consented to a search of their vehicle which contained no drugs but $195,000 in cash. The currency was found inside a hidden compartment in the vehicle. The defendants claimed to have no knowledge of the money and it was ultimately forfeited to the State.
At trial, the State was unable to call the officer who had initiated the North Carolina traffic stop because he was on vacation. Without his testimony, the State could not prove that the stop was lawful. Hernandez argued that because of this, evidence of the currency seizure in that case should have been excluded.
The exclusionary rule was judicially created to protect Fourth Amendment rights of people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” by making evidence obtained in such searches and seizures inadmissible. The Court noted that the rule did not exclude evidence in all cases, however, but only when application of the rule effectively serves its remedial objectives. In applying the exclusionary rule, the Georgia Supreme Court has directed lower courts to “weigh the likelihood of deterrence against the costs of withholding information in the truth-seeking process.”
With respect to similar transactions, the Court acknowledged that evidence of prior acts of the defendant is generally inadmissible. Such evidence is admissible, however, in certain situations, including where it shows prior attempts by the defendant to commit the same crime for which he is charged.
The Court reasoned that applying the exclusionary rule to this case would not likely deter illegal searches in Georgia because the incident in question occurred in North Carolina. The Court saw no reason why excluding evidence because of the conduct of a law enforcement officer in another state would meet the exclusionary rule’s remedial objectives in Georgia.
This decision has drawn the attention of criminal defense attorneys throughout Georgia and beyond as it may have devastating implications for defendants facing similar transaction evidence. Without the ability to challenge the seizure of this evidence on constitutional grounds, defendants subject to illegal searches are effectively being stripped of their Fourth Amendment rights. Hernandez’s defense attorneys have filed a petition for certiorari in the Georgia Supreme Court seeking a review of this decision. Considering that the Court of Appeals’ ruling is a first not just in Georgia, but nationally, the Supreme Court will likely agree to hear this potentially monumental case.
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