467 U.S. 431 (1984)

One-Sentence Takeaway:  Evidence obtained in violation of defendant’s constitutional rights is admissible if the state establishes that the evidence would inevitably have been found through normal police investigation.

Facts: Defendant was arrested following the disappearance of a 10-year-old girl. The police informed Defendant’s counsel that they would drive Defendant to the police station without questioning him, but during the trip, one of the officers began a conversation with Defendant that ultimately resulted in his making incriminating statements and directing the officers to the child’s body.

A systematic search of the area that was being conducted with the aid of 200 volunteers that had been initiated before Defendant made the incriminating statements was terminated when the Defendant guided police to the body.

Defendant argued his Sixth Amendment rights were violated and any evidence obtained as a result of his statements should have been excluded under the exclusionary rule.

Holding: The United States Supreme Court held that evidence pertaining to the discovery and condition of the victim’s body was properly admitted at trial on the ground that it would ultimately or inevitably have been discovered, even if no violation of any constitutional provision had taken place.

Applying the “inevitable discovery doctrine,” the Supreme Court found that even though the statements made by Defendant could not be admitted at trial because they were obtained in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights, evidence of the body’s location and condition was admissible because the State had proven that if the search had continued, the body would have been discovered within a short time in essentially the same condition as it was actually found.  The Court held that the “record… supports the finding that the search party ultimately or inevitably would have discovered the victim’s body. The evidence clearly shows that the searchers were approaching the actual location of the body, that the search would have been resumed had respondent not led the police to the body, and that the body inevitably would have been found.” Id. at 448-450.

Reference Desk

State v. Lopez, 869 P.2d 889 (Haw. 1995):

While this court has utilized the independent source exception in determining whether to validate otherwise unconstitutional searches, we have not yet decided whether to adopt the “inevitable discovery” exception to the exclusionary rule. The inevitable discovery exception is, in a sense, a variation of the independent source exception, see Wayne R. LaFave Jerold H. Israel, Criminal Procedure § 9.3(e) (2d ed. 1992), and was first adopted by the United States Supreme Court in Nix v. Williams,467 U.S. 431104 S.Ct. 250181 L.Ed.2d 377 (1984).

In Williams, a ten-year-old girl disappeared from a YMCA building in Des Moines, Iowa, where she had been accompanied by her parents. Id. at 434, 104 S.Ct. at 2504. Shortly thereafter, a witness saw respondent Williams leaving the YMCA carrying a large bundle wrapped in an army blanket. Id. The next day, Williams’ car was found in Davenport, Iowa. Id. Several items of clothing belonging to the missing child along with some of Williams’ clothing and an army blanket were also found at a rest stop somewhere between Des Moines and Davenport. Id.
Subsequently, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Williams Id. at 435, 104 S.Ct. at 2504-05. Because the Iowa police suspected the missing girl’s body to be located somewhere between Des Moines and the rest stop where the clothing and blanket were found, they initiated a large-scale search with over two hundred volunteers for the body. Id.

Meanwhile, Williams surrendered to the local police in Davenport. Id. Des Moines police informed Williams’ attorney that they would go to Davenport and return him to Des Moines without questioning him. Id. Two Des Moines detectives then went to Davenport, took Williams into custody, and proceeded to drive him back to Des Moines. Id. During the drive, one of the detectives began a conversation with Williams by saying:

`I want to give you something to think about while we’re traveling down the road. . . . They are predicting several inches of snow for tonight, and I feel that you yourself are the only person that knows where this little girl’s body is . . . and if you get a snow on top of it you yourself may be unable to find it. And since we will be going right past the area [where the body is] on the way into Des Moines, I feel that we could stop and locate the body, that the parents of this little girl should be entitled to a Christian burial for the little girl who was snatched away from them on Christmas [E]ve and murdered. . . . [A]fter a snow storm [we may not be] able to find it at all.’

Id. at 435-36, 104 S.Ct. at 2505 (brackets in original). The detective told Williams not to answer and to just “think about it[.]” Id. at 436, 104 S.Ct. at 2505.

Sometime thereafter, Williams asked the detective whether the police had found the young girl’s shoes. Id. After the detective replied that he was not sure, Williams directed the police to a point near a service station where he said he had left them; the shoes were not found. Id. Williams then directed the police to the child’s body and the search was called off Id. At the time, one of the search teams was only two and one-half miles from the area where the body was located — a location within the area to be searched. Id.

a. First trial
Williams was indicted for first-degree murder. At trial his attorney moved to suppress the evidence of the girl’s body and all related evidence. Id. The trial court denied the motion, and a jury found him guilty as charged. Id. at 437, 104 S.Ct. at 2505-06. Williams then sought habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa Id. The district court concluded that the evidence relating to the body had been wrongly admitted at trial and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed. Id. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and affirmed, holding that the detective had obtained the incriminating statement from Williams by violating his right to counsel. Id. (citing Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 38797 S.Ct. 123251 L.Ed.2d 424
(1977)). However, the Court noted that “evidence of the body’s location and condition `might well be admissible on the theory that the body would have been discovered in any event, even had incriminating statements not been elicited from Williams.’” Id.
(citing 430 U.S. at 407, n. 12, 97 S.Ct. at 1243, n. 12).

b. Second trial
At Williams’ second trial, the court concluded that the State had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that, “if the search had not been suspended and Williams had not led the police to the victim, her body would have been discovered `within a short time’ in essentially the same condition as it was actually found.” Id. at 437-38, 104 S.Ct. at 2506 (emphasis in original). The trial court also ruled that “if the police had not located the body, `the search would clearly have been taken up again where it left off, given the extreme circumstances of this case and the body would [have] been found in short order.’” Id.
at 438, 104 S.Ct. at 2506 (emphasis in original). Accordingly, the challenged evidence was again admitted. The jury found Williams guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison. Id. The Iowa Supreme court affirmed.

In 1980, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa again reviewed the case on a writ of habeas corpus. The court affirmed, finding that the body would have inevitably been found by the searchers Id. at 439, 104 S.Ct. at 2506-07. However, the Eighth Circuit reversed. While the Eighth Circuit agreed that there is an inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule, the court held that the exception requires proof that the police did not act in bad faith. Once again, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari. Id. at 440, 104 S.Ct. at 2507.

c. The Supreme Court’s holding
Justice Burger, writing for the majority,[26] began the opinion by acknowledging the Court’s past adherence to the “independent source” exception to the exclusionary rule. Id. at 441-42, 104 S.Ct. at 2507-08 (citing Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 38540 S.Ct. 18264 L.Ed. 319 (1920) and Wong Sun v. United States,371 U.S. 47183 S.Ct. 4079 L.Ed.2d 441 (1963)).[27] The Williams majority justified its adherence to the independent source doctrine by stating, inter alia, that “[w]hen challenged evidence has an independent source, exclusion of such evidence would put the police in worse position than they would have been in absent any error or violation.” Id. at 443, 104 S.Ct. at 2509. (emphasis added). The majority then explained that the “exclusion of evidence that would inevitably have been discovered would also put the government in a worse position, because the police would have found the evidence if no misconduct had taken place.” Id. at 444, 104 S.Ct. at 2509(emphasis added). Thus, the majority ruled that while the independent source exception did not apply in the case before it, “its rationale is wholly consistent with and justifies our adoption of the ultimate or inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule.” Id.

Consequently, the Williams majority announced the following rule:

If the prosecution can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the information ultimately or inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means — here the volunteers’ search — then the deterrence rationale has so little basis that the evidence should be received. Anything less would reject logic, experience, and common sense.

Id. (footnote omitted). The majority proceeded to stress the primary purpose of the exclusionary rule on the federal level i.e., deterrence.[28] Finally, after reviewing the evidence, the majority held that the young girl’s body would inevitably have been discovered. Id. at 450, 104 S.Ct. at 2512.

d. Brennan’s dissent
Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall, dissented from the majority. In his dissent, Justice Brennan began by agreeing that “the `inevitable discovery’ exception to the exclusionary rule is consistent with the requirements of the Constitution.” Id.at 459, 104 S.Ct. at 2517. However, Justice Brennan opined that the majority overlooked the crucial distinction between the “inevitable discovery” exception and the “independent source” exception. Id.

When properly applied, the `independent source’ exception allows the prosecution to use evidence only if it was, in fact, obtained by fully lawful means. It therefore does no violence to the constitutional protections that the exclusionary rule is meant to enforce. The `inevitable discovery’ exception is likewise compatible with the Constitution, though it differs in one key respect from its next of kin: specifically, the evidence sought to be introduced at trial has not actually been obtained from an independent source, but rather would have been discovered as a matter of course if independent investigations were allowed to proceed.


Thus, Justice Brennan pointed out that “[t]he inevitable discovery exception necessarily implicates a hypothetical finding that differs in kind from the factual finding that precedes application of the independent source rule.” Id. Because of this distinction, Justice Brennan would have required the prosecution to satisfy a heightened burden of proof before allowing evidence to be admitted under the “inevitable discovery” exception to the exclusionary rule. Id. He explained:

To ensure that this hypothetical finding is narrowly confined to circumstances that are functionally equivalent to an independent source, and to protect fully the fundamental rights served by theexclusionary rule, I would require clear and convincing evidence before concluding that the government had met its burden of proof on this issue. Increasing the burden of proof serves to impress the factfinder with the importance of the decision and thereby reduces the risk that illegally obtained evidence will be admitted.

Id. at 459-60, 104 S.Ct. at 2517 (emphasis added and internal citations omitted).

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