What’s On Their Minds: Arrest Warrants Issued Without A Probable Cause Determination. 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.

On April 8, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio heard 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.

Case Background

In November 2011, a Toledo police detective presented criminal complaints to Nellie Mata, a Deputy Clerk of the Toledo Municipal Court, charging Brandon Hoffman with the misdemeanor offenses of theft, criminal damaging, and house stripping.  Mata issued arrest warrants without making any probable cause determination. 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 the Overton case required the court to deny the motion.  State v. Overton, 2000 WL 1232422,  is a decision from the Sixth District which held that a barebones complaint that only cites the statutory elements of the offense satisfies the Fourth Amendment. 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 appeals 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.

Read the oral argument preview of the case here.

At Oral Argument

Hoffman’s Argument

There can be no good faith reliance by law enforcement officials on an arrest warrant issued without a magisterial finding of probable cause.  Police officers seeking arrest warrants know from their training a probable cause determination is necessary, just as it is for a search warrant. They got these arrest warrants in a manner inconsistent with the way they were trained.

Reliance on the Overton decision was not justified, as that case, before it was overruled by the Sixth District in this case, was directly contrary to U.S. Supreme Court precedent.  Police officers must take their directives from the U.S. Supreme Court. A reasonably trained police officer knows he or she cannot rely on a bare bones complaint. Additionally, Overton was limited to the facial sufficiency of the complaint; there was no probable cause determination in Overton. So even if officers were following Overton, there is nothing in Overton that allows them to skip the probable cause determination step.

The good faith exception to the warrant requirement does not apply here because of the deficiency in the warrant-issuing process. There was no neutral detached magistrate in this situation.

State’s Argument

The county prosecutor’s office divided its time with the Attorney General

Prosecutor’s Argument

The prosecutor conceded the warrants were not facially valid, and acknowledged that the entire procedure has been changed in the Toledo Municipal Court. Defense counsel said he had heard the same thing. Both agreed that was not in the record, however.

The prosecutor argued that the police officers had a right to rely in good faith on the procedures here at issue because Overton was good law at the time these warrants were issued. The exclusionary rule is not an automatic remedy that arises upon any constitutional violation.  The exclusionary rule is designed to deter future abuses of law enforcement, not misconduct by the judiciary. It has no application, then, in this circumstance.

Any warrants issued before the Sixth district overruled Overton would be valid as of the date of their issuance rather than the date of their service. If the Court finds this warrant valid based on the good faith reliance of the police officer, all similarly situated warrants would also be valid even if unserved. The good faith of the police officer is measured at the time of the issuance of the warrant.

The prosecutor also argued that it was not just the arrest warrants that led police to Hoffman, citing other evidence of what led the police to him as a suspect.

Attorney General’s Argument

The Court should write the rule urged by the Prosecutor, namely that police officers act in good faith when they obtain a warrant from a neutral magistrate pursuant to procedures that have been reviewed and upheld by a court of appeals.  The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that because of the significant cost to the justice system from the exclusionary rule, the rule should be applied only when there is culpable police conduct and suppression is necessary to deter future police misconduct. There was no such police misconduct in this case.

What Was On Their Minds

Good Faith Reliance by Police

Is there any evidence in the record that the police knew that the clerk was issuing these warrants improperly, asked Justice French?

If everyone was doing it wrong, then isn’t it reasonable for a police officer to have a reasonable belief that it is ok, asked Justice O’Neill? You have an officer and a procedure that everyone has followed for 17 years—how can it not be in good faith for an officer to follow that procedure?

Wouldn’t a police officer be justified in relying on what he believed in good faith to be the acceptable practice, asked Justice O’Donnell? Was there any culpable police misconduct in this case? Chief Justice O’Connor asked the same thing. The prosecutor said no and the defense said yes.

The police went to the clerk’s office, presented the information, and got their warrants—how can it not be reasonable when this is how it was done for seventeen years, asked Justice Lanzinger? The process has gone on and on without challenge, so how can there be a duty or responsibility laid on an officer to say this procedure is wrong?

Clerk’s Role

Is a clerk of court a neutral magistrate, asked Justice O’Neill? Must the police now ask for the credentials of the clerk issuing the warrant? Does the Court have the power to expand the term neutral magistrate to include the clerk with the rubber stamp at the desk?
Is it the police at fault or the clerk, asked Justice O’Donnell? (plenty of blame to go around replied defense counsel)

The Overton decision

Isn’t it fair to rely on an appellate decision from that district, asked Justice O’Donnell? Hasn’t the appeals court blessed this confusion? The procedure laid out in Overton was followed; isn’t that what we want police to do?

The Effect of the Past on the Future

Several of the justices asked if the procedures had now been changed.

Have there been systemic changes to this process since the filing of this case, so that this is not likely to be repeated asked Justice O’Donnell? Who is the issuing officer now? How extensively need the Court write in this case?

As invalid as this procedure was, I am concerned all of these invalid warrants are in the computer and may be used in the future, commented Justice Lanzinger.  May they be used in the future?  What do we do about cases in which someone is pulled over and there are warrants for an arrest that may be invalid?  And in a  And in a key question of the day, she asked, once this was not done in accordance with the Fourth Amendment how could these warrants be relied on in the future?

If the Court were to find this warrant valid based on the good faith reliance of the police officer, would all similarly situated warrants still be valid even if they are unserved, asked Chief Justice O’Connor? She added that the Court could (professor’s note–and probably will!) say that from now on all warrants in this jurisdiction must be done in accordance with this method, but the impact of such a ruling on another defendant would be for another day.

How it Looks From the Bleachers

To Professor Bettman

It looks like the state is going to win this particular case on the basis of the good-faith exception, and justifiable reliance by police on an appellate decision approving of the practice in the clerk’s office, but I think the holding is going to be a narrow one.  While defense counsel made a strong argument that even if the police followed Overton, Overton  itself was contrary to U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the justices didn’t seem to expect that much sophistication from the  police. Despite another strong argument by defense counsel that the police should have known it was wrong to get arrest warrants without any probable cause determination, the Court is unlikely to find police misconduct here, but rather a judicial branch error, and thus no need for exclusion as a remedy in this case.  That said, the Court is likely resoundingly to condemn and disavow the procedure followed for the past seventeen years in Lucas County Municipal Court.   Justice Lanzinger, who is from Toldeo, was especially upset about this, and about the effect of all those bad warrants remaining in the computer. I don’t think police reliance on the old process could be justified in the future in serving one of these arrest warrants, but of course that isn’t the case before the court.  So Hoffman may lose his personal battle but win the war—something his lawyer seemed to anticipate.

This case reminded me of State v. Hobbs,  2012-Ohio-3886, which the AG mentioned in passing in his argument. The deputy clerk issuing arrest warrants in the Barberton Municipal Court was also employed as a sergeant by the Summit County Sheriff’s office. The Court nixed this process, holding in the case syllabus 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.”  Hobbs  was accepted both on conflict certification and discretionary review, but the 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. If interested, you can read more about the Hobbs case here.

It is shocking when these systemic processes in which basic constitutional fundamentals are not followed come to light after years and years of business as usual.

To Student Contributor Cameron Downer

This one is too close to call.

During Hoffman’s oral argument, the Justices asked a plethora of questions relating to whether or not the police officers could have reasonably relied on the arrest warrants at issue. For example, Justice Lanzinger questioned whether officers are sophisticated enough to know about out-of-district appellate decisions, and Justices O’Donnell and O’Neill questioned how an officer could unreasonably rely on an unchallenged practice that lasted 17 years.

Conversely, the State was asked multiple questions regarding how a decision applying the good faith exception would affect the backlog of invalid arrest warrants in Lucas County. In particular, Justice Lanzinger seemed concern that applying the good-faith exception in Hoffman’s case would thereby convert all the constitutionally deficient warrants in Lucas County to be valid. Both Chief Justice O’Connor and Justice O’Neill seemed to share Justice Lanzinger’s concern about how a decision for the State would affect similarly situated defendants.




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One Response to What’s On Their Minds: Arrest Warrants Issued Without A Probable Cause Determination. State v. Hoffman

  1. William Eberle says:

    Under “Case Background” a .45 caliber handgun registered to Holzhauer is mentioned. I am unaware of any gun registration requirement anywhere in the state of Ohio. I expect that what actually happened is that police determined through commercial records that Holzhaurer had purchased the weapon in question. Had he acquired it through a casual sale transaction at a gun show then no public record would exist regarding ownership. This may seem trivial relative to the issue at hand, but given that it occurs in an important discussion of legal peculiarities it stands out as just as sloppy as issuing warrants without a prior probable cause determination.

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