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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Unsigned Arrest Warrant Valid When Probable Cause Found

An arrest warrant does not need to be signed by a judicial officer to be valid if the officer indicates there is probable cause for the suspect to be arrested, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the 2018 arrest of Kandale Harrison in Logan County for trafficking in cocaine and the subsequent search that led to incriminating evidence was valid. However, the justices were divided in their reasoning and differed from the Third District Court of Appeals analysis that found Harrison’s arrest was valid.

Writing the Court lead’s opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated “a signature on the warrant is strongly advised” even if the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not require it. The signature of a judicial officer helps assure a citizen the warrant is valid, he noted, but the “fundamental safeguard” of an arrest warrant’s validity is the finding of probable cause.

The Court affirmed the Third District’s decision to remand the case to the Logan County Common Pleas Court for further proceedings.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Patrick F. Fischer joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion. Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred in judgment only without a written opinion.

Justice Jennifer Brunner also concurred in judgment only, finding that the officer did not need a warrant to arrest Harrison because the officer witnessed Harrison commit a felony a few weeks earlier and the arrest was in public. She noted the Court’s recent State v. Jordan decision confirmed that officers can make arrests for felony crimes in public without a warrant.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice R. Patrick DeWine explained that under established precedent there was no need for a warrant to arrest Harrison. But the only issue raised by the parties was whether the unnecessary warrant was valid. Under these circumstances, Justice DeWine explained, the best solution was simply to dismiss the case, leaving in effect the decision of the appellate court to admit the seized evidence.  

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy joined Justice DeWine’s opinion.

Signature Deliberately Absent from Warrant
Justice Donnelly noted the absence of a signature on the arrest warrant was not the result of inadvertent oversight, but was a deliberate practice of the Bellefontaine Municipal Court in 2018. Karla Stevens, the clerk of court, acknowledged the court’s practice at the time was to not sign or enter arrest warrants into the court’s computer databases until the arrest warrant had been executed. The purpose was to avoid the risk of prematurely divulging information that could compromise an ongoing criminal investigation.

In February 2018, Logan County Sheriff’s Office Detective Brent Joseph supervised a controlled drug buy from Harrison by a confidential informant. Joseph listened to recorded calls between Harrison and the informant and then listened to the actual buy through a recording device worn by the informant. Joseph confirmed the substance sold to the informant was cocaine.

Two weeks later, Joseph signed an affidavit reciting the facts of the drug buy and requested the common pleas court to authorize the sheriff’s department to install an electronic tracking device on Harrison’s vehicle. The application was granted, and the device allowed the Logan County Joint Drug Task Force to monitor the vehicle’s movement.

About two weeks after the tracking device was placed on Harrison’s vehicle, Joseph appeared before Stevens, the municipal clerk of court, and prepared a one-page complaint against Harrison for violating two state laws by trafficking cocaine.

Stevens signed the complaint. Stevens then took to Municipal Court Judge Ann Beck a blank arrest warrant that stated it allowed the arrest of “the defendant,” whose name was indicated in the complaint. Along with the complaint and the blank warrant was Joseph’s two-page affidavit that had the facts about the drug buy by the informant.

Judge Beck reviewed the paperwork. She left the arrest warrant blank and stamped the attached complaint with the words, “hearing held 2/27/2018” and “probable cause found.” She initialed the complaint on a line designated for “judge.”

A week later, Joseph saw Harrison’s vehicle traveling through Logan County and instructed a patrol officer to pull Harrison over. Once pulled over, Joseph arrested Harrison. A search of the vehicle led to the seizure of incriminating evidence. The next day, after learning of the arrest, a deputy clerk signed and dated the arrest warrant and entered the information into the court’s database.

Suspect Sought to Suppress Evidence
After Harrison was charged with multiple felony counts, he asked the common pleas court to suppress the evidence seized in the search, arguing the arrest warrant was not valid because it was unsigned when he was arrested.

The trial court granted the request, reasoning the officer could not reasonably believe the arrest warrant was valid because it was not signed by the judge.

The Logan County Prosecutor’s Office appealed the decision to the Third District. The Third District did not decide if the arrest warrant was valid. Rather, the appellate court ruled a good-faith exception applied because it was reasonable for Joseph to believe the warrant was valid. The Court held the evidence should not be suppressed.

Harrison appealed the Third District’s decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Court Disregards Arrest in Public Argument
In its arguments to the Supreme Court, the county prosecutor argued that a warrant was not needed to arrest Harrison because his apprehension occurred in public. Justice Donnelly wrote the Court could not consider the argument. The lead opinion noted the argument was not raised at the trial court level, giving Harrison no chance to contest it, and that the state’s argument is based on R.C. 2935.03 and R.C. 2935.04.

The opinion noted those two laws permit law enforcement officers and citizens to arrest or detain a person believed to have committed a felony “until a warrant can be obtained.” Those laws do not apply because Joseph had obtained a warrant before Harrison was arrested, the opinion stated.

Supreme Court Analyzed Criminal Rule, Constitution
The Court stated it had to analyze Harrison’s argument that under the Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure, the warrant needed to be signed, and if an unsigned warrant was invalid, he was subjected to an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.

Harrison cited the Court’ 1991 State v. Williams decision, in which the Court held a search warrant is void ab initio if not signed by a judge prior to a search. The Court’s lead opinion found Harrison’s “reliance on that case is misplaced.”

The Court explained that the issuance for an arrest warrant follows the filing of a valid complaint by a law enforcement officer. Under Crim.R.4, an affidavit swearing the facts of the crime is filed along with the complaint. If there is probable cause to “believe that an offense has been committed, and the defendant has committed it, a warrant for the arrest of the defendant” can be issued by a judge, magistrate, clerk of court, or officer of the court designated by a judge.

The rule does not require the warrant to be signed, the Court noted. The key requirement is that a “neutral and detached” judge or court officer, found probable cause based on the sworn complaint and supporting affidavits, the lead opinion stated.

The Court wrote there is no dispute that Joseph swore before the clerk of court that he believed Harrison committed a crime and Joseph filed an affidavit with the facts to support the charge. There was no dispute that the complaint stamped by the judge indicating probable cause was attached to the complaint when Joseph arrested Harrison, the opinion noted. The opinion stated that Harrison acknowledged at the Supreme Court’s oral argument that Judge Beck found probable cause based on valid documents provided to her.

While the Court held the rule did not require a signature, the opinion stated the Court needed to determine whether an unsigned warrant complied with the Fourth Amendment. The amendment does not allow for an arrest warrant to be issued until it is made with probable cause, “supported by Oath or affirmation,” and particularly describes the person being arrested.

The trial court maintained an arrest warrant is not “issued” until it is signed by a judge so that the officer knows a judicial officer actually approved it. The Supreme Court noted the Fourth Amendment does not require a signature to issue a warrant. The opinion stated “there is no doubt Judge Beck found probable cause” based on the officer’s sworn statements, and the warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Since the warrant was valid, the search of Harrison’s vehicle was constitutional, the Court concluded.

Warrant Issuance Procedure Changed
The Court acknowledged the municipal court’s desire to keep an arrest warrant confidential so that it does not compromise a criminal investigation or the identity of a confidential informant. But the opinion stated that there were better ways to address the matter. The prosecutor reported to the Supreme Court that the municipal court has changed its practices and warrants are now signed.

“We strongly encourage courts throughout the state of Ohio to review their practices and make any necessary changes that will avoid the uncertainty generated by unsigned warrants,” the lead opinion stated.

Determining Validity of Warrant Unnecessary, Concurrence Maintained
In her concurring opinion, Justice Brunner wrote the lack of a judicial official’s signature on the warrant “is essentially a red herring” because the case law indicates a warrant was not necessary.

Justice Brunner cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2001 Atwater v. Lago Vista decision, which found an officer may make a warrantless arrest in public for an offense committed in the officer’s presence. Joseph was present when Harrison sold the cocaine to the informant. While Joseph did not arrest Harrison immediately to protect the safety of the informant, there was no requirement that he obtain a warrant to arrest Harrison. The Court confirmed in Jordan that an officer does not need to obtain an arrest warrant if there is a delay between the crime and the arrest if the arrest is in public, Justice Brunner wrote. Joseph’s arrest of Harrison was valid, she concluded.

 Dissent Likened Question Presented to a Cigarette Smoking Centaur
“If a centaur smokes 5-packs of cigarettes everyday for 30 years, does the centaur run the risk of getting lung cancer?” Justice DeWine wrote in his dissenting opinion. Drawing on a hypothetical from a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Justice DeWine used the centaur example to illustrate the problem with the court’s consideration of the case.

Justice DeWine explained that the majority answered a question with a flawed premise: Was Harrison’s arrest invalid because the warrant lacked a signature? But it did not matter if the warrant was valid or not -- “Indisputably, the police did not need a warrant to carry out Harrison’s arrest,” he wrote. 

The difficulty was that the state failed to advance the argument that a warrant was unnecessary and under its traditional rules the Court does not consider arguments that were not made in the lower courts, the dissent stated. In these circumstances, Justice DeWine suggested, the best course was for the Court to simply dismiss the case as having been improvidently allowed, leaving in place the decision of the court of appeals to admit the seized evidence.

2020-1117. State v. Harrison, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-4465.

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