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Exceptions to the exclusionary rule are recognized where the introduction of reliable and probative evidence would significantly further the truth-seeking function of a criminal trial and the likelihood that admissibility of such evidence would encourage police misconduct is but a "speculative possibility." One exception to the rule permits prosecutors to introduce illegally obtained evidence for the limited purpose of impeaching the credibility of the defendant's own testimony.
The day after a shooting which left one of a group of eight boys dead and another seriously injured, police took petitioner James into custody as a suspect. James, who then had black curly hair, admitted under police questioning that the previous day his hair had been reddish brown, long, and combed straight back, and that he had just dyed and curled it in order to change his appearance. After James was indicted for murder and attempted murder, the trial court sustained his motion to suppress the statements about his hair as fruit of an unlawful arrest. At trial, five members of the group of boys testified that the shooter had slicked-back, shoulder-length, reddish hair, and that they had seen James several weeks earlier with hair that color and style. Each boy identified James as the shooter even though at trial he had black hair worn in a "natural" style. James did not testify in his defense, but called one Henderson, who testified that on the day of the shooting James had black hair. The court permitted the State to introduce James' illegally obtained statements to impeach Henderson's testimony. James was convicted on both counts. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the convictions on the ground that the exclusionary rule barred the admission of the illegally obtained statements for the purpose of impeaching a defense witness' testimony. The State Supreme Court reversed, reasoning that the impeachment exception to the exclusionary rule -- which permits the prosecution to introduce illegally obtained evidence to impeach the defendant's own testimony -- should be expanded to include the testimony of other defense witnesses in order to deter the defendant from engaging in perjury "by proxy."
Did the exclusionary rule bar the admission of James’ illegally obtained statements for the purpose of impeaching a defense witness' testimony?
The State Supreme Court erred in expanding the impeachment exception to encompass the testimony of all defense witnesses. Such expansion would frustrate rather than further the purposes underlying the exclusionary rule. The truth-seeking rationale supporting the impeachment of defendants does not apply with equal force to other witnesses. The State Supreme Court's "perjury by proxy" premise is suspect, since the threat of a criminal prosecution for perjury is far more likely to deter a witness from intentionally lying than to deter a defendant, already facing conviction, from lying on his own behalf. Moreover, some defendants likely would be chilled from calling witnesses who would otherwise offer probative evidence out of fear that those witnesses might make some statement in sufficient tension with the tainted evidence to allow the prosecutor to introduce that evidence for impeachment. Finally, expansion of the exception would significantly weaken the exclusionary rule's deterrent effect on police misconduct by enhancing the expected value to the prosecution of illegally obtained evidence, both by vastly increasing the number of occasions on which such evidence could be used and also, due to the chilling effect, by deterring defendants from calling witnesses in the first place and thereby keeping exculpatory evidence from the jury. The exclusion of illegal evidence from the prosecution's case in chief would not provide sufficient deterrence to protect the privacy interests underlying the rule. When police officers confront opportunities to obtain illegal evidence after they have legally obtained sufficient evidence to sustain a prima facie case, excluding such evidence from only the case in chief would leave officers with little to lose and much to gain by overstepping the constitutional limits on evidence gathering.