Oral Argument Preview: Evidence Seized Pursuant to Arrest Warrants Issued Without A Finding of Probable Cause by a Judicial Officer. State v. Hoffman.

Update: On November 4, 2014 the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the oral argument here.

On April 8, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State of Ohio v. Brandon Lee Hoffman, 2013-0688. At issue in this case is whether the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule precludes evidence that is obtained pursuant to an arrest warrant issued without probable cause by a judicial officer, and, if so, whether the good-faith exception prevents its application.

Case Background

In November 2011, criminal complaints and arrests warrants were filed in the Toledo Municipal Court charging Brandon Hoffman with the misdemeanor offenses of theft, criminal damaging, and house stripping. The complaints were prepared by a police detective who spoke to the victim and two potential witnesses. The complaints listed the location of the offenses, the items taken, and the victim’s name; however, the complaints did not state why the complainant thought Hoffman committed the violations, nor were the complaints accompanied by any affidavits.

The detective presented the complaints to Nellie Mata, a Deputy Clerk of the Toledo Municipal Court, who issued the arrest warrants without making any determination of probable cause. This has allegedly been the practice in the Toledo Municipal Court for at least seventeen years. Mata later testified that she does not know what probable cause is, and that she has no qualifications to make such a determination.

Two weeks after the arrest warrants were issued, police responded to a call to Scott Holzhauer’s home. Police discovered Holzhauer’s body lying in a pool of blood with a crowbar embedded in his skull. A gun safe near the body was open and empty. One of Holzhauer’s neighbors stated that Hoffman had borrowed a crowbar from Holzahauer and that Hoffman used to live across the street. The police then ran Brandon Hoffman’s name through their computerized database and it showed the three active arrest warrants.

The officers then went to Hoffman’s residence to serve the warrants. Upon serving the warrants, the police immediately arrested Hoffman and discovered a .45 caliber handgun registered to Holzhauer. On December 6, 2012, Hoffman was indicted for aggravated murder and aggravated robbery.

Subsequently, Hoffman filed a motion to suppress on the basis that the arrest warrants were invalid because they were issued without a finding of probable cause. After requesting more testimony on the issue, the trial court denied Hoffman’s motion to suppress and held that Overton required the court to deny the motion. After the denial, Hoffman pleaded no contest to the aggravated robbery and murder.

On appeal to the Sixth District Court of Appeals, the court concluded that the arrest warrants were invalid and overruled Overton. However, the court found that the arresting officers reasonably relied in good faith on the arrest warrants and, therefore, the good-faith exception precluded the application of the exclusionary rule.

Key Precedent

Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, an no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.)

Davis v. United States, 131 S.Ct. 2419 (2011)(The good-faith exception precludes the application of the exclusionary rule when officers reasonably rely on binding appellate precedent.)

United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984)(Evidence obtained by way of a defective search warrant is admissible at trial, so long as the warrant was obtained in good faith and the officer had reasonable grounds for believing the warrant was properly issued.)

Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1 (1995)(Due to a clerical error, defendant’s quashed warrant remained active and led to defendant’s car being searched. In denying suppression, the Court held that the exclusionary rule does not apply when an error in a warrant occurs due to the actions of personnel not enforcing the law.)

Herring v. United States, 129 S.Ct. 695 (2009) (Police searched a man’s vehicle after being incorrectly informed that the defendant had active warrants. In denying the exclusionary rule, the Court held that to trigger the exclusionary rule, police conduct must be sufficiently deliberate so that exclusion can meaningfully deter it, and sufficiently culpable that such deterrence is worth the price paid by the justice system.)

State v. Overton,  2000 WL 1232422, (6th Dist.) (A barebones complaint that only cites the statutory elements of the offense satisfies the Fourth Amendment. Overruled by Sixth District in the appeal of this case.)

Hoffman’s Argument

Hoffman argues that officers cannot reasonably rely on an arrest warrant that was issued without a magisterial finding of probable cause.

First, Hoffman argues that his case is distinguishable from other cases in which the good-faith exception precluded the exclusion of evidence. Specifically, he argues that Herring and Evans involved warrants that were invalid due to clerical errors. In contrast, his case deals with a warrant with the complete absence of a probable cause determination.

Second, Hoffman argues that the Constitutional defects in an arrest warrant cannot be cured by having other officers serve them. Specifically, Hoffman argues that an arrest warrant cannot be insulated from challenge when an officer, who engages in constitutional misconduct, passes the warrant to another officer to serve it.

Third, Hoffman asserts that the absence of magisterial review before issuing the arrest warrant precludes the application of the Leon good faith exception. Hoffman argues that a magisterial finding of probable cause is a requirement of the exception. Further, there could not be an objective reasonable reliance on a criminal complaint that is so lacking in indicia of probable cause.

Fourth, Hoffman argues that the exception stated in Herring is inapplicable to his case. Specifically, Hoffman asserts that the police officers and the Municipal Court were engaging in systematic negligence by allowing Deputy Clerks to “rubber stamp” arrest warrants without a probable cause finding.

Lastly, Hoffman argues that the good faith exception articulated in Davis is also inapplicable. Hoffman asserts that even though Overton was precedent at the time of his motion to suppress, the case cannot be considered “binding precedent.” Specifically, Hoffman argues that Overton was the only decision in the country to hold that bare bones pleadings of a criminal complaint satisfied the Fourth Amendment and, therefore, was not truly “binding.”

State’s Argument

The State argues that the denial of Hoffman’s motion to suppress was proper because he was not entitled to the exclusionary remedy. First, the State argues that the exclusionary rule exists to punish the misconduct of law enforcement. In contrast, this case deals with a failure of the judicial branch to require a probable cause determination before issuing an arrest warrant. Therefore, applying the exclusionary remedy would do nothing to deter unlawful or egregious police conduct.

Second, the State argues that the warrants were not so facially deficient that officers could not reasonably rely on them. As such, the police officers relying on the arrest warrants were not culpable in serving the warrants. Therefore, under Herring, the good faith exception must preclude the application of the exclusionary rule because the police did not act in negligent or reckless disregard of Hoffman’s rights.

Third, the good faith exception articulated in Davis precludes the application of the exclusionary rule. Davis prevents exclusion in situations where officers reasonably rely on binding appellate precedent of their jurisdiction. Since Overton was good law when Detective Violanti created the bare bone complaints, the exclusionary should not apply.

Fourth, the State argues that the societal costs of potentially freeing a murderer outweigh the deterrence value in applying the exclusionary rule. The State argues that courts must balance the cost of exclusion with the deterrence value and, in this case, the benefit is minimal because the failure to find probable cause was an action by the judiciary, not law enforcement.

Lastly, the State argues that the inevitable discovery doctrine is applicable in this case. The State argues that law enforcement knew that Hoffman was a person of interest and would have investigated further and arrested him. Specifically, the State argues that Hoffman took Holzhauer’s cell phone and that location information would have inevitably led them to Hoffman’s home.

Hoffman’s Proposed Proposition of Law

There can be no good faith reliance on the validity of an arrest warrant issued without a magisterial finding of probable cause.

State’s Proposed Counter Proposition of Law No. 1

The exclusionary rule is not applicable to punish judicial error or misconduct, and law enforcement officials may not be expected to oversee judicial practices and procedures.

State’s Proposed Counter Proposition of Law No. 2

Police do not engage in misconduct when they make arrests based on warrants or when they file complaints for arrests using a format validated by the appellate court of the jurisdiction.

State’s Proposed Counter Proposition of Law No. 3

The deterrence benefits of exclusion do not outweigh the substantial societal costs in this case.

State’s Proposed Counter Proposition of Law No. 4

In any event, the evidence would inevitably have been discovered pursuant to search warrant.

Amicus Brief in Support of Hoffman

The Office of the Ohio Public Defender, the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office, the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Maumee Valley Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association filed a combined Amicus in support of Hoffman. In the brief, the amici focus on the systematic issuing of arrest warrants without probable cause and how there could be no good faith reliance on such systemic violations.

Amicus Brief in Support of the State

Both the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney’s Association and the Ohio Attorney General filed amicus briefs on behalf of the State. The Ohio Prosecuting Attorney’s Association argues that the suppression of evidence in this case would not serve to deter deliberate, reckless, or illegal conduct of officers.

In his brief, the Attorney General argues that motions to suppress evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment should be denied when police obtain a warrant in a manner consistent with binding appellate precedent. To rule otherwise would not serve to deter future misconduct. The Attorney General also argues that the Court need not reach the question of the applicability of the good-faith exception because of the independent source and inevitable discovery doctrines.

The AG’s office will share oral argument time with the state in this case.

Student Contributor: Cameron Downer

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