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Good Faith Exception Applies, Even Without Prob. Cause: Ohio Sup. Ct.

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on November 07, 2014 1:08 PM

The facts of State v. Hoffman are pretty simple: Brandon Hoffman was identified by neighbors as the last person who'd interacted with Scott Holzhauer, who was found dead in his home. Hoffman had three active misdemeanor arrest warrants, so police executed the warrants. Arriving at Hoffman's house, they found a gun and two cell phones (one of which belonged to Holzhauer). They then got a search warrant, then arrested Hoffman.

The kicker here is that the three misdemeanor arrest warrants probably shouldn't have been issued in the first place. A deputy clerk admitted that there was no probable cause determination made; the warrants merely recited the statutory language, with no facts supporting the probable cause admission.

You Call That Probable Cause?

A state court of appeals said there was no probable cause for issuing the warrants, but said the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied because the officers in the homicide investigation believed in good faith that the earlier warrants were valid.

The probable cause affidavits for the three earlier warrants contained conclusions that Hoffman committed crimes -- namely, removing gutters and siding from a house. That's it. "[E]ach complaint simply states that Hoffman violated every element of the particular misdemeanor offense," without any indication where the information came from.

What's more, that's the way business was usually conducted. The deputy clerk testified that she never asked police any questions and never actually made a probable cause determination. Then there's this gem:

When asked if she knew what probable cause is, she said, "no, I don't." She denied that it was part of her job responsibility to make a finding of probable cause. She simply gave the officer the oath, issued the warrants, and placed them into the computer system.

And that's true: Clerks were never informed that they had to make probable cause determinations independent of the police determinations. Essentially, they were rubber-stamping whatever police wanted, so long as the request was in the proper format.

Still, There's Good Faith

That's not cool; the U.S. Supreme Court has expressly rejected warrant-issuing magistrates as being "rubber stamp[s] for the police." But even so, the exclusionary rule is a deterrent, and its use is limited to situations in which it would have a deterrent effect. In this case, excluding the evidence would punish the police officers for a mistake the deputy clerk made.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also spoken on this issue, and it's not helpful for Hoffman: In Herring v. United States, the High Court basically addressed Hoffman's situation, finding that an arrest and search based on a recalled warrant didn't implicate the police and therefore didn't merit suppression.

Dissent: Totally Unreasonable

Justice Paul Pfeifer was a little repulsed at the procedure the deputies were instructed to follow, finding it woefully insufficient and likely "to appear in a novel by Franz Kafka or a transcript of a trial from the totalitarian era of the Soviet Bloc." He would have held that the good faith exception didn't apply, as the affidavits for the warrants were "so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable."

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