Merit Decision: A Law Enforcement Officer Cannot Also Serve As a Neutral Magistrate. State v. Jillian Hobbs.

On August 29, 2012, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in State v. Jillian Hobbs,  2012-Ohio-3886. The Court accepted the case on conflict certification and discretionary review and consolidated the cases.  The certified question is “may a law enforcement officer, serving in a dual-role as an officer and deputy clerk of a local municipal court, act as a neutral and detached magistrate for purposes of Crim. R. 4(A)?”  The issue accepted on discretionary review is, if the answer to the certified question is no, is exclusion the remedy? In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Cupp, with Justice O’Donnell only concurring in the syllabus and judgment, the Court answered the certified question with a clear “no” and dismissed the discretionary appeal as improvidently accepted.

Facts

Three Summit County sheriff’s detectives went to Jillian Hobbs’ house to investigate a neighborhood burglary in which she had been implicated. Hobbs admitted that she had committed the crime. Hobbs was arrested and taken to the county jail.  One of the detectives drew up a complaint charging Hobbs with burglary, an arrest warrant based on the complaint, and an affidavit swearing to the facts in the complaint.  All of this paperwork was submitted to the deputy clerk of the Barberton Municipal Court, who happened also to be employed as a sergeant by the Summit County Sheriff’s office.  The arresting officer swore to the truth of the information to the deputy clerk, who determined that probable cause existed for Hobbs’ arrest, and signed the warrant. The complaint was filed with the court the next day.  Hobbs was subsequently indicted for burglary.

Procedural Posture

Hobbs filed a motion to suppress and to dismiss the charge on the grounds that a law enforcement officer could not have acted as a neutral and detached magistrate. The trial court found that the arrest warrant was improperly issued, but that the exclusionary rule does not apply to pre-violation conduct—the confession here did not derive from the invalid arrest warrant– so the motion to suppress was denied.  Hobbs was convicted and sentenced accordingly.  On appeal, Hobbs argued that the trial court erred in failing to grant her motion to suppress.  The Ninth Appellate District affirmed.

Warrantless Arrest or Not?

The parties in this case disagreed about the legal rationale for Hobbs’ arrest. Hobbs argued that the documentation submitted by the detective to the deputy clerk and the procedures applied to that documentation were actually the detective’s request for an arrest warrant under Crim. R. 4(A)(1). The state asserts the detective never sought an arrest warrant from the deputy clerk, but decided at the scene that he had probable cause to make a warrantless arrest and then acted according to the procedure set for warrantless arrest in Crim. R. 4(E)(2).

Repudiation of the Dual Capacity Doctrine

In the end, the Supreme Court decided it didn’t matter which side was correct, because it held that “a person acting in a dual capacity as deputy sheriff for a county and deputy clerk for a municipal court located in that same county is not a neutral and detached magistrate for purposes of determining whether probable cause exists for issuing an arrest warrant.”  In this part of the case, the Court upheld the judgment of the court of appeals that the arrest warrant was invalid because the deputy clerk impermissibly acted in a dual capacity.

Separation of Powers

The guts of this decision are a nicely eloquent exegesis by Justice Cupp on the separation of powers—specifically, as he put it, “the need for separating the executive function of law enforcement from the judicial function of determining probable cause.”

U.S. Supreme Court Precdent

In 1972, in Shadwick v. Tampa, 407 U.S. 345, 350, (1972) the U.S. Supreme Court held that a magistrate issuing a warrant must meet two tests-the magistrate must be (1) neutral and detached and (2) capable of determining whether probable cause exists for the requested arrest. A year earlier the high court had held in Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 450, (1971) that a magistrate is not neutral and detached if that magistrate is also the law enforcement officer in charge of the investigation.

And From the Ohio Attorney General

Following  from this federal precedent the Ohio high court cited some Ohio Attorney General Opinions holding that the kind of dual capacity like the one in this case creates an impermissible conflict of interest. A deputy court clerk who is employed by the sheriff would find it difficult to set aside his loyalty to his boss, or to disbelieve his colleagues. That individual, like the deputy clerk in this case, “is subject to influences that jeopardize the independence of the judicial function.”

Divided Loyalties and Conflicting Duties

So, in the final analysis the Court held that this dual capacity function “creates an inappropriate tension between the executive function of law enforcement and the judicial function of determining probable cause. The deputy clerk’s dual-capacity position blurs the separation and threatens the independence of the executive and judicial functions. Further, the dual-capacity position places the deputy clerk at risk of divided loyalties and conflicting duties… The result is that the deputy clerk lacks the requisite neutrality and detachment to make the probable-cause determination necessary for issuing a valid warrant pursuant to Crim.R. 4(A)(1).”

But is Exclusion the Remedy?

In part I of this decision the Court held the arrest warrant in this case was invalid.  BUT that did not end the matter, because the issue in the discretionary appeal was whether the exclusionary rule then applied in the case. Both the trial court and the appellate court found that the invalid warrant led to no evidence subject to suppression. The evidence that convicted Hobbs came from “sources independent of the improperly issued arrest warrant.”  So the Supreme Court held that the question in the discretionary appeal about whether the exclusionary rule is an appropriate remedy for an invalidly issued arrest warrant was not properly before it,  and dismissed the discretionary appeal  as improvidently accepted. The Court of Appeals decision was affirmed, meaning the motion to suppress was properly overruled, and the conviction stands.

Case Syllabus

A person acting in a dual capacity as deputy sheriff for a county and deputy clerk for a municipal court located in that same county is not a neutral and detached magistrate for purposes of determining whether probable cause exists for issuing an arrest warrant.

Concluding Observations

I predicted that the Court was likely to disapprove the practice of a law enforcement officer serving as a neutral and detached magistrate. At oral argument it was Justice O’Donnell who emphasized the separation of powers problems this caused.  This ended up as the primary focus of the majority decision in which he concurred only in judgment and the syllabus.  I also thought the Court was likely to agree with the lower courts that there was nothing to exclude here, and to uphold Hobbs’ conviction. Still, the big picture principle affirmed here was to ban the dual-capacity practice. These fundamental principles are important to re-iterate from time to time.

 

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One Response to Merit Decision: A Law Enforcement Officer Cannot Also Serve As a Neutral Magistrate. State v. Jillian Hobbs.

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