Oral Argument Preview. Is a Single Trash Pull Enough for a Search Warrant? State of Ohio v. Lauren Jones

Update: On February 12, 2015 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 September 9, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State of Ohio v. Lauren Jones, 2013-2023. The issue in the case is whether a single trash pull provides sufficient probable cause to issue a search warrant.

Case Background

Investigators learned from a reliable confidential informant that an African American woman named Lauren was allegedly manufacturing methamphetamine inside of her residence on Rowley Avenue in Cleveland. On December 4, 2011, Jones’ home was burglarized. The person arrested was known to have involvement with methamphetamine.

Three months following the burglary, Jones was seen by detectives inside of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center discussing the burglary with a prosecutor. The detectives approached Jones, and after corroborating her name as well as a physical description supplied by the confidential informant, performed a trash pull at her residence.

The trash pull yielded empty chemical bottles, plastic tubing, used coffee filters, and a plastic bottle containing methamphetamine oil. After these items were recovered, detectives drafted and executed a search warrant, signed by a judge. During the search, detectives recovered dishes with methamphetamine residue, white pills, a coffee filter, and a scale. Jones was subsequently charged with eight drug related offenses. Jones filed a motion to suppress the evidence, asserting that the search warrant was improperly granted.

The trial judge found that a single trash pull immediately preceding the issuance of a search warrant did not pass constitutional muster, and granted the motion to suppress. The Eighth District Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed.

Key Precedent

Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S.213 (1983)(totality of circumstances test is to be used to determine whether probable cause supports the issuance of a search warrant.)

State v. George, 45 Ohio St.3d 325, 544 N.E. 2d (1989) (Judges or magistrates who sign a warrant must base their decision on a common-sense analysis discerned from the totality of the circumstances given in the affidavit. Additionally, great deference should be given to the signer of the warrant. Doubtful cases should be resolved in favor of upholding the warrant.)

State v. Weimer, 2009-Ohio-4983 (8th Dist.) A single trash pull must be viewed in isolation when determining whether probable cause has been met.)

State v. Edwards,2013-Ohio-4342 (10th Dist.) (A single trash pull coupled with various corroborating tips and relevant incriminating information is sufficient to establish probable cause.)

United States v. Elliot, 576 F.Supp. 1579(S.D. 1984) (The discovery of discarded contraband, on its own, is not sufficient to support a determination of probable cause. Presence of contraband outside of the home does not make it probable that illegal activity is going on inside of the home.)

State’s Argument

The State first asserts that a single trash pull in conjunction with tips and background information is sufficient to establish probable cause. Additionally, great deference is granted to the judge or magistrate who made the determination on whether a warrant was permissible.

The State also contends that when a trash pull is viewed independently, the entire concept of probable cause is diminished. The State analogizes probable cause with a puzzle made up of individual pieces, which in their totality create a discernible picture. In this case, the anonymous tips made, information gleaned from the confidential informant, and the pull itself are all parts of the overall picture. The state asserts that the Eighth District is attempting to create a bright-line rule: a single trash pull is not sufficient in establishing probable cause.  This effectively dismantles the ability to gather probable case by isolating a piece of the puzzle.

The State argues that the Eighth District’s case law conflicts with decisions from the Seventh, Tenth, and Twelfth Districts. Holdings from these districts support the State’s assertion that a trash pull coupled with additional drug related information is sufficient in attaining a search warrant. Decisions from those districts do not isolate the trash pull, but rather incorporate it into the “totality of circumstances” test. Cases from other courts around the country also support the state’s argument that a trash pull is not to be viewed in isolation, but in the context of other tips and background information.

Finally, The State elaborates on just how much evidence was compiled before the trash pull took place. These “puzzle pieces” included: a month’s worth of information from a confidential informant; separate accounts of persons implicating the residence of Jones; and the man arrested in connection with the burglary of Jones’ house was found with coffee filters and bags tainted with methamphetamine residue.

Jones’ Argument

Jones disagrees that extensive evidence was collected prior to the trash pull.  The tenuous evidence gathered was primarily based on a statement describing “ a woman named Lauren cooking meth on Rowley.” The search warrant affidavit only mentions the geographic area of Cleveland, Ohio, casting a wide net of potential suspects. Furthermore, the affidavit was lacking in any instances where drug activity was observed or surveyed. These unsubstantiated allegations do not confirm drug activity at this address. The trash itself could have been placed by any neighbor on the busy street and does not necessarily make it probable that Jones was the person who had thrown it out. Jones points out that both the trial and appellate court called for officers to take further steps in ensuring that probable cause was met.

Next, Jones disagrees that a conflict exists between the Eighth District and other appellate district decisions. The totality-of-the-circumstances test was applied in all the districts to the facts of the cases at hand. The Eighth District is not purporting to create a different bright-line rule. The trash pull is typically strong indicia of criminal activity, but is not dispositive in attaining probable cause. The lower courts did assess all of the evidence collected and determined it was not sufficient in attaining a warrant. Finally, Jones argues the good faith exception argument raised by the amicus in the case was waived because the State by failed to raise it below.

State’s Proposed Proposition of Law

A single trash pull conducted just prior to the issuance of the warrant corroborating tips and background information involving drug activity will be sufficient to establish probable cause.

Jones’ Proposed Counter Proposition of Law

A single trash pull does not necessarily supply sufficient probable cause to support the issuance of a search warrant.

Amicus Briefs

Amicus In Support of the State

The Ohio Attorney General filed an amicus brief in support of the State presenting the following proposed proposition of law:

When examination of trash from a specific residence yields illegal drugs, or materials manufacturing those illegal drugs, probable cause supports a warrant to search the residence.

The Attorney General’s brief further expands on this proposition by asserting the “common-sense” standard probable cause is centered around. If methamphetamine residue is found in residential trash than the logical nexus is that these items came from that residence. Additionally, the brief submits that the trash pull coupled with corroborative tips should be enough for probable cause to attach. The brief goes on to dismiss the claim that a person subjected to a search warrant must be viewed engaging in criminal activity. A search warrant designates a “place” to search for “things” to be seized; therefore a person does not need to be explicitly mentioned in a warrant. Finally, the AG argues that the officers acted in good faith throughout the course of their investigation and if probable cause did not exist, the warrant should still stand.

Amicus In Support of Jones

The office of the Cuyahoga County Public Defender also filed an amicus brief in support of Jones and opposing the State’s proposed proposition of law.

First, the Public Defender’s office contests the State’s assertion that curbside trash is an accurate indicator of what is inside of a residence. Trash cans are available to any passer-by.

Second, the search warrant affidavit was insufficient for the same reasons as already discussed by Jones. “The trash cannot pull itself up by its own bootstraps.”

Finally, the brief asserts that the State is the one attempting to draw a bright-line rule: a single trash pull is sufficient in attaining probable cause. This completely deviates from the accepted “totality of the circumstances” test, which is what the lower courts correctly applied.  This case is simply one of error correction, and as such, should be dismissed as improvidently allowed, or the Court  should simply affirm the court of appeals decision without a syllabus.

Student Contributor: Austin LiPuma

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