What’s on Their Minds: 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.

On September 9, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio heard 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

Cleveland police learned from a confidential informant that an overweight African American woman named Lauren was manufacturing methamphetamine somewhere in the Cleveland area. Police also learned that Jennifer Chappell also was cooking meth, and had moved her operation to Rowley Avenue. On December 4, 2011, Jones’ Rowley Avenue home was burglarized. The person arrested was known to have involvement with methamphetamine.

About three months after the burglary, the police detective who had received the informant’s tip was at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center on an unrelated matter. The detective saw Chappell-whom he knew-sitting next to an overweight African American woman. The detective found out from a prosecutor that the woman with Chappell was Lauren Jones, that Jones lived at 1116 Rowley Avenue, and that Jones was at the Justice Center because she had been the victim of a burglary at her residence. Armed with this information, the police decided to perform a trash pull at Jones’ Rowley Avenue 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 granted the motion to suppress, finding that the single trash pull was insufficient to support the issuance of the warrant.  The Eighth District Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed.

Read the oral argument preview of the case here.

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.)

At Oral Argument

State’s Argument

The state divided its time between the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, and amicus Attorney General DeWine’s Office.

Prosecutor’s Argument

The Court should reject the bright line rule established by the Eighth District that a single trash pull after police received tips will not provide sufficient and probable cause for issuance of a search warrant.

But this is not really a single trash pull case. There were other steps that led to the decision to do the trash pull from this particular residence, including tips about meth manufacturing, tips about both women involved, the fortuitous identification of Lauren Jones at the Justice Center, and the fact that the man caught in the burglary of Jones’ house was found with meth. The trash pull cannot simply be viewed in isolation here. It corroborated what the police had uncovered. When looking at the totality of the circumstances, there was enough to issue the warrant.

This precedent in the Eighth District is in conflict with that of other appellate districts around the state, and it is why the Court does need to write on this. This case involves more than error correction. There needs to be a uniform statewide standard for what is sufficient probable cause for the issuance of a search warrant.

The Attorney General’s Argument

The defense seems to be arguing that something approaching reasonable doubt is needed to get a search warrant, which of course is not the law. Furthermore, a search warrant is for a place, not a person. Lauren Jones may be totally innocent, but what was found in the trash gave the police probable cause to search the residence at 1116 Rowley Avenue for evidence of a crime.

Absent extraordinary circumstances, one trash pull is enough to establish probable cause for the issuance of a search warrant, and it was enough in this case.

Jones’ Argument

The defense divided its time between Jones’ lawyer and the office of the Cuyahoga County Public Defender.

Defense Counsel’s Argument

The totality of the circumstances test is the correct test to apply here, but this case is nothing more than error correction. The tip in this case was vague and non-specific, and the informants not known to be reliable. There was no suggestion of ongoing criminal activity beyond what was found in the trash pull; for the evidence to be sufficient for a warrant there needs to be evidence of an ongoing criminal enterprise. Also, there was no indication of when the trash was placed on the curb. There may have been reasonable suspicion here that criminal activity was afoot, but that’s not good enough for a warrant. More investigation was necessary in this case before a warrant was justified. Application of the totality of the circumstances test in this case shows that there just wasn’t enough there yet.

Public Defender’s Argument

If the court of appeals did apply the wrong test (and the PD doesn’t think it did) the remedy is not to admit the evidence, but to send it back to the appeals court to apply the correct test.

The Court should reject the Attorney General’s argument that a single trash pull is enough to establish probable cause for a warrant. Telling the police it is ok to search your house because a trash receptacle that was open to the public has contraband in it is a step the Court should not take.

Application of the totality of the circumstances test in this case showed the shortcoming of the evidence of probable cause in this case. The trial judge and the court of appeals got it right. This is a case of error correction in which there was no error.

What Was On Their Minds

Was This Really A Single Trash Pull Case?

Justice French immediately asked for clarity on this point. Did the trial court and the appeals court look more broadly than this?

In a key question of the day, Justice Lanzinger asked whether the trash pull corroborated the tip? Wasn’t the tip important in establishing probable cause?

Where did the idea of a single trash pull originate, asked Justice O’Donnell? Shouldn’t subsequent police investigation in following up on a tip be considered in establishing probable cause?

Sufficiency of the Evidence for the Warrant

If there is contraband found, isn’t that enough to take to a judge to get a warrant, asked Justice O’Neill? Isn’t the indication of recent criminal activity enough to support a warrant?

What about the earlier arrest at the Rowley Street address, asked Justice French?

Should the Court find that there was a sufficient nexus between the tip, the research by the officer and the trash pull to establish probable cause, asked Chief Justice O’Connor, in another key question of the day. She commented that you don’t have to know what charges will be when you execute the warrant.

An affidavit for probable cause for a warrant doesn’t need all the evidence that may come forth at trial, Justice Lanzinger commented. Is the language in this warrant insufficient as a matter of law to establish probable cause?

 The Totality of the Circumstances Test

What were the facts the appeals court looked at in this case, asked Justice Lanzinger?

If this is the correct test, what more would be necessary to establish probable cause to search that residence, asked Chief Justice O’Connor?

Simple Error Correction or New Law Here?

Is this just a matter of error correction, or a case we should write on, asked Justice Lanzinger? We are talking about the totality of the circumstances and the facts that were available to determine if there was probable cause. Where is there new law here?

Is the law in Ohio misunderstood on a single trash pull being used to establish probable cause, asked Justice O’Donnell?

Should the rule of law be that the Cleveland police department can just go down the alley of each house pulling trash, and if they find evidence of drug residue in the trash behind some house, that is enough for a warrant, asked Justice Pfeifer, in his usual colorful style, adding, “why not just pick out a high crime area and start shopping?”

The Remedy

What would be the correct remedy here if there is error, asked Justice French? For us to clarify the test, or send it back? Justice O’Donnell asked the same thing.

If there is error, should the evidence not be suppressed, asked Chief Justice O’Connor?

How it Looks from the Bleachers

To Professor Bettman

Like the Court is sorry it ever agreed to hear this case. I think one thing is certain—the Court doesn’t see this as a single trash pull case, so it isn’t going to take a position on whether a single trash pull, without more, is enough to establish probable cause for a warrant.  The Cuyahoga County prosecutor, unlike the Assistant AG, wisely conceded at the outset that this wasn’t just a single trash pull case. Nor did the state’s proposed proposition of law assert this. I think that is the first thing the Court is going to set straight.

The Court could-but probably won’t- dismiss the case, as improvidently granted, because there really is no new law to write. Both sides agreed the totality of the circumstances is the correct test here. But they clearly disagreed on its application in this case, and a majority of the justices seemed to disagree with the lower court rulings.

At the end of the argument, this testy exchange occurred between Chief Justice O’Connor and the assistant Attorney General, who was advocating for the single trash pull rule:

“Why are you making it so complicated? You’ve got the tip and the investigation, limited though it was, you’ve got the trash pull. I think you are going much farther and making more justices more uncomfortable with your position than when you started.” Ouch. And Justice O’Donnell followed right on the heels of the Chief’s admonishment with this:

“What you should be hearing from this court is this is not a single trash pull case; there is a lot of other evidence here. You don’t have to argue the single trash pull because this is not a single trash pull case. There are other things attendant to that, don’t you agree?” (The assistant AG agreed!)

I think a majority of the justices will find that the totality of the circumstances in the case, like the tips, and the identification happenstance at the Justice Center, combined with the trash pull was sufficient for the search warrant.

To Student Contributor Austin LiPuma

Almost immediately, Justice French questioned the State’s assertion that the Eighth District drew a bright-line rule regarding trash pulls. Although a little tepid in his delivery, the prosecutor did a sufficient in job in supporting this claim in his response. The State continued to assert that a trash pull viewed in isolation departs from the accepted totality of the circumstances analysis and in this case there was enough to issue a warrant. Counsel then went on to claim that the disparities among the appellate courts make this issue more than mere error correction.

Counsel on behalf of Jones first focused on the factual circumstances that are salient to establishing probable cause. In this case, the extent of the “tip” was that an African American named Lauren was cooking meth. The Public Defender also argued that not enough was done in conjunction with the trash pull for a search warrant to be issued.

The justices homed in on the tip and trash pull combined, and a proverbial death knell rung in the Courthouse as Chief Justice O’Connor read from the warrant affidavit that the trash pull unveiled contraband “indicative of criminal activity.” The Court simply did not buy the argument that criminal activity must be within a certain timeframe incidental to the issuance of a search warrant.

By the end of both arguments, it appeared that the Court did not intend to write any new law here. From the Court’s vantage point, this case presented other tips, information, and evidence that was considered originally by the issuing magistrate. Based on this, the Court will likely find that probable cause was established and the lower courts were incorrect for demanding a higher threshold.




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