Merit Decision: Court Disapproves Arrest Warrants Issued Without A Probable Cause Determination, But Denies Exclusion of Evidence as Remedy. State v. Hoffman

On November 4, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in State v. Hoffman, 2014-Ohio-4795. In a 6-1 opinion written by Justice Judy Lanzinger, in which Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote a short separate concurrence and Justice Paul Pfeifer dissented, the court held that the arrest warrants in this case were invalid because they were issued without a determination of probable cause, but suppression of the evidence was not required in the case because the police officers relied in good faith on the longstanding, appellate-court-validated, but now expressly disavowed procedures then used in the Toledo Municipal Court. The case was argued April 8, 2014.

Case Background

In November 2011, a Toledo police detective filed three criminal complaints and requests for arrest warrants to a deputy clerk of the Toledo Municipal Court, charging Brandon Hoffman with the misdemeanor offenses of theft, criminal damaging, and house stripping.  Each complaint cited the pertinent statute, the elements of the charged offenses, and contained a short narrative statement of the victim, the location of the offense, and the property taken. The deputy 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. The deputy 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. They found Holzhauer’s dead body and an open, empty gun safe. One of Holzhauer’s neighbors stated that a man named Brandon had recently visited Holzhauer, and had been interested in buying guns from him. Further information identified Brandon as Hoffman, and a computer check disclosed the active misdemeanor arrest warrants.

The officers decided to execute the arrest warrants. They went to the address listed on the warrants and, after knocking and being let in the door, found and arrested Hoffman.  At the time of the arrest, they discovered a gun on the floor and a cell phone, both later identified as belonging to Holzhauer.

On December 6, 2012, Hoffman was indicted for aggravated murder and aggravated robbery. Hoffman challenged the legality of his arrest and filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained, on the ground that the arrest warrants were invalid because they were issued without a finding of probable cause.

Procedural Posture 

After a hearing, the trial court found that the warrants were issued without a finding of probable cause, and that the procedures of the Toledo Municipal Court for handling complaints and warrants violated the U.S. and the Ohio Constitutions, but that suppression of the evidence was not required because of the precedent established by the Sixth District Court of Appeals in State v. Overton, 2000 WL 1232422.  In that case, the Sixth District held that a barebones complaint that only cites the statutory elements of the offense satisfies the Fourth Amendment.  After this ruling, Hoffman pleaded no contest to the aggravated robbery and murder, and was sentenced accordingly.

On appeal, the Sixth District Court of Appeals concluded that the arrest warrants were invalid and overruled Overton. But 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 and the analysis of that argument here.

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.)

Ohio Constitution Article I Section 14  (The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and possessions, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, particularly describing the place to be searched and the person and things to be seized.)

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)

Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971) (the Fourth Amendment has been interpreted to mean that probable cause must be determined by a neutral and detached magistrate rather than by an official of the executive branch whose duty is to enforce the law, to investigate, and to prosecute.)

United States v. United States Dist. Court for E. Dist. of Michigan, S. Div., 407 U.S. 297 (1972) (The requirement that probable cause must be determined by a neutral and detached magistrate reflects “our basic constitutional doctrine that individual freedoms will best be preserved through a separation of powers and division of functions among the different branches and levels of Government.”)

State v. Hobbs, 2012-Ohio-3886 (“[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 purposed of determining whether probable cause exists for issuing and arrest warrant.”)

Crim.R. 4(A)(1) (“If it appears from the complaint, or from an affidavit or affidavits filed with the complaint, that there is probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed, and that the defendant has committed it, a warrant for the arrest of the defendant . . . shall be issued by a judge, magistrate, clerk of court, or officer of the court designated by the judge, to any law enforcement officer authorized by law to execute or to serve it.”)

Giordenello v. United States, 357 U.S. 480 (1958) (A complaint or affidavit that merely concludes that the person whose arrest is sought has committed a crime is not sufficient to support a finding that probable cause exists for an arrest warrant.)

United States v. Ventresca, 380 U.S. 102 (1965) (“Recital of some of the underlying circumstances in the affidavit is essential if the magistrate is to perform his detached function and not serve merely as a rubber stamp for the police.”)

Herring v. United States, 129 S.Ct. 695 (2009) (“suppression is not an automatic consequence of a Fourth Amendment violation.”)

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.)

State v. Wilmoth, 22 Ohio St.3d 251, 490 N.E.2d 1236 (1986) (Ohio formally adopts the Leon good-faith exception.)

United States v. Calandra, 414 U.S. 338 (1974) (the exclusionary rule is “a judicially created remedy designed to safeguard Fourth Amendment rights generally through its deterrent effect, rather than a personal constitutional right of the party aggrieved.”)

Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1 (1995)(whether the exclusionary rule’s remedy of suppression is appropriate in a particular context is a separate analysis from whether there has been a Fourth Amendment violation.)

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.)

Merit Decision

Fourth Amendment Fundamentals

Justice Lanzinger began the decision with some fundamentals of the Fourth Amendment and its Ohio Constitutional analogue (Article I Section 14).  Probable cause is required to search or to seize, and probable cause is to be determined by a neutral and detached magistrate, not by an arm of law enforcement.

The purpose of the complaint or the affidavit is to provide enough information for the neutral and detached magistrate to determine personally from the facts whether it is likely that an offense has been committed by the person named. A mere conclusory statement that the person whose arrest is being sought has committed a crime is not good enough. And probable cause must be determined at the time the warrant is sought, not later.

The Procedures Used in the Toledo Municipal Court Flunk the Fourth Amendment

The officer who got the warrant in this case did so “in the usual way.” Charitably, the complaints are described as “barebones” complaints.  In this case, none of the three complaints identify the source of the information, state that the detective witnessed the offense, explain how the detective connected Hoffman to the offenses with which he was charged, nor did anyone ask the detective why she thought this.  Nor were the complaints supported by affidavits.  But it gets much worse.

The deputy clerk who issued the warrants, and who had done so for seventeen years, testified that she had never asked an officer a single question, did not make a probable cause determination in Hoffman’s case, and testified that she did not know what probable cause meant. She also denied that it was part of her job to make a finding of probable cause—she just gave the officer the oath, issued the warrants, and entered them into the computer system.   Toledo Municipal Court guidelines for clerks issuing warrants backed up her testimony. Nowhere in the guidelines are clerks instructed on making a finding of probable cause. The supervisor who created the guidelines also admitted she didn’t know what probable cause was and had never made a probable cause determination.

How unbelievable/depressing is this??? It certainly was to Justice Lanzinger, who is from Toledo. But egregious Fourth Amendment violation that this was determined to be, (the warrants were found to be invalid) this was not the end of the court’s inquiry.

Exclusion of Evidence Not Justified as the Remedy Here

As the U.S. Supreme Court has held, especially recently, just because there is a Fourth Amendment violation doesn’t mean suppression of the evidence automatically results. Whether suppression is required is a separate issue from whether there has been a Fourth Amendment violation. Suppression is necessary to deter future police misconduct.

Parties’ Position on Suppression

Hoffman argued that the 17 year pattern and practice of the Toledo police submitting bare bones complaints which were then rubber-stamped by the Toledo Municipal Court, without any probable cause determination, was so egregious as to warrant exclusion of the evidence in this case. Justice Pfeifer bought this argument, and incorporated it into his dissent.

The state argued that the exclusionary rule was designed to deter police misconduct, and it should not be applied to hold law enforcement responsible for the errors of judicial employees. The state further argued that the officers relied in good faith on the arrest warrants, and couldn’t reasonably have been expected to question their validity when the court of appeals in their jurisdiction had approved the procedure in question. This position forms the bones of the majority opinion.

The Good Faith Exception

What is it? An exception to the exclusionary rule, created by the U.S. Supreme Court, which “provides that that the exclusionary rule should not be applied to bar the use of evidence obtained by officers acting in objectively reasonable reliance on a search warrant issued by a detached and neutral magistrate but ultimately found to be unsupported by probable cause.” (State v. Leon) This exception was later extended to the execution of invalid arrest warrants.

In short, the good faith exception was recognized in light of the high cost of exclusion to both the judicial system and to society at large.  The “bottom line” of exclusion, in many cases, “is to suppress the truth and set the criminal loose in the community without punishment.” (Davis v. U.S.)

Application of the Good Faith Exception in this Case

The majority rejected Hoffman’s argument that there can be no good-faith reliance on arrest warrants here because the deputy clerk totally abandoned her role as neutral and detached magistrate when she failed to make a probable cause determination before issuing the warrants. The court found there was no evidence that the deputy clerk colluded with the police or acted as an arm of law enforcement, or was anything other than a neutral and detached magistrate.

“The arresting officers themselves, however, had no reason to question or doubt the validity of Hoffman’s warrants, and they acted in good faith in relying on them.  Suppression of evidence here will not serve the purposes of the exclusionary rule,” wrote Lanzinger.

Complying With Binding Precedent—the Effect of the Overton Decision.

It is settled law that the good faith exception applies when the police act in strict compliance with binding precedent.  The wrinkle here was that the Overton decision, decided by the Sixth District Court of Appeals in 2000, which approved this kind of bare-bones complaint that does nothing more than recite the statutory elements of an offense, was so clearly wrong.  That case seems to have fallen through the cracks (the Ohio Supreme Court declined jurisdiction in the case) until it was overruled by the Sixth District in this case, more than a decade later.  But as the majority notes, it was never overruled or reversed by a state or federal court, and remained binding precedent in the Sixth District. So the police reasonably relied on it in good faith.

Clean Up Your Act Immediately, Toledo Municipal Court!

Notwithstanding the outcome of this case in favor of the state, both Justice Lanzinger for the majority, and Justice O’Donnell in his separate concurrence, sharply criticized the practices of the Toledo Municipal Court in failing to determine probable cause before issuing arrest warrants, for at least seventeen years. The court made it clear that the procedure had to change immediately, and that police officers could no longer rely in good faith on warrants issued under the old system.

Justice Pfeifer’s Dissent

Justice Pfeifer acknowledged the draconian effect of the exclusionary rule, but would not apply the good faith exception under the circumstances of this case.  He believes the police officer here should well have questioned the legitimacy of the warrant, because the officer testified that she has never been asked to explain why she had probable cause to make an arrest. As he sees it, the clerk just served as a rubber stamp for law enforcement. He would find suppression necessary here to send a forceful message about this ongoing institutional unconstitutional behavior in issuing arrest warrants.

In his signature colorful style, Pfeifer said this:

“If these facts were to appear in a novel by Franz Kafka or a transcript of a trial from the totalitarian era of the Soviet Bloc, it would not be extraordinary. It might even be considered a source of amusement. But we are talking about the city of Toledo in the great state of Ohio in the United States of America. Our country is considered to be governed by the rule of law, not as a police state. But the facts of this case suggest that the residents of Lucas County have been the subject of innumerable warrants that were issued as if by the police department itself. The warrants were issued virtually without scrutiny, and it is inconceivable that the officers did not realize this.”

To Pfeifer, the officer involved did not have a good faith reason to believe the warrants were properly issued.

New Judicial Federalism

Justice Pfeifer also continues his longstanding interest in using the Ohio Constitution as an independent ground for greater protection for the rights of criminal defendants than the federal constitutional floor. He wrote that he had independently analyzed the facts of this case under Article I Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution and would find that the issuance of the warrants violates the state constitution.  He also wrote that he could be persuaded, as he has been in the past (see,e.g., State. v. Robinette, 73 Ohio St.3d 650, rev’d 519 U.S. 33, (1996)) that the Ohio Constitution provides greater protection than the federal constitution in the area of Fourth Amendment protections, but since Hoffman never argued that, “it is not necessary for this court to go beyond the Fourth Amendment to justify the result I espouse.”

Case Syllabus

  1. A neutral and detached magistrate or other person authorized under Crim.R. 4(A)(1) must make a probable-cause determination before an arrest  warrant can be issued.
  2. A complaint or affidavit, offered as a basis for the issuance of an arrest warrant, does not support a finding of probable cause when it merely concludes that the person whose arrest is sought has committed a particular crime.
  3.  When the police conduct a search in objectively reasonable, good-faith reliance upon binding appellate precedent, the exclusionary rule does not apply.

Concluding Observations

I called this one almost dead on after argument. Here is what I wrote:

“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 Toledo, 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.”

I’m glad Justice Lanzinger did end up authoring the majority opinion, as the practice from her “home” county must have been particularly embarrassing.

One more thing—I think the holding in this case bodes ill for the recently argued case of State of Ohio v. Sudinia Johnson, involving the warrantless placement of a GPS tracking device on a car before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Jones. I think the Ohio high court is going to apply the good faith exception in that case as well, finding that binding precedent at the time allowed placement of such devices without a warrant.  The Supreme Court of Ohio may apply the third paragraph of the syllabus of this Hoffman case to Johnson.

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