Dateline: June, 2008, Issue 4

Do jurors protect civil rights when illegal searches find illegal items?

When judging the legality of a search, any items that are discovered during the search should be irrelevant. Under the law, search legality is based only on information that police have prior to conducting the search, and whether or not such information meets the legal standard to conduct the search.

Casper and colleagues (1988) examined jurors' attitudes toward police officers who had improperly searched an apartment. Some jurors were told that the police found 340 packages of heroin in the apartment. Other jurors were told that the police found nothing incriminating. Yet other jurors were given no information about what the police found. All jurors were asked what damages, if any, to award the plaintiff, who was the resident of the apartment searched by the police.

Despite the legal irrelevance of the outcome of the search to the search's legality, jurors were highly influenced by the search's outcome when awarding damages. When illegal drugs were found, far less money was awarded the plaintiff than when either nothing incriminating was found or jurors had no outcome information about the search.

Of importance, jurors learning illegal drugs were discovered also felt that the police were less likely to have used excessive force than were other jurors.

Jurors excuse illegal police conduct more, and protect citizen's civil rights less, when illegal police conduct turns up evidence of a crime.

Source Casper, J.D., Benedict, K., & Kelly, J. R. (1988). Cognitions, attitudes and decision-making in search and seizure cases. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 18, pp. 93-113.