The Good Faith Exception To The Exclusionary Rule Saves A Deficient Missouri Search Warrant

When will a search warrant be supported by probable cause?  What is the “exclusionary rule”?  And what is the “good faith exception” to the exclusionary rule?  These were some of the questions considered by the Missouri Court of Appeals last month (February 2015) in the case of State v. Gregory Robinson Sr, (WD 77664), which came out of Randolph County, Missouri.

The Defendant (Robinson) was charged with manufacturing drugs.  At his trial, his attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized in the case, claiming that the search warrant used by the police officers did not show sufficient “probable cause” to search the premises.  He won his motion, and the evidence was suppressed.  The State, however, appealed.

And the appeals court ruled in the State’s favor.  It agreed with the trial court that insufficient probable cause existed, but it found that the “good faith exception” to the warrant requirement came into play.  In other words, no warrant was needed.  For this reason, the appeals court reversed.

We will examine the details here.  Prior to trial, Robinson filed a motion to suppress all evidence seized from his home. In that motion, he took issue with the statements of the two confidential sources. He argued that the statements should have fallen outside of the issuing judge’s determination of probable cause because the affidavit failed to meet the fundamental requirements to credit the statements of the confidential sources under Missouri law.

Robinson argued that the information provided by the confidential sources was unreliable because the affidavit did not include a specific time and place in which the sources observed the drug trafficking, because the sources did not specifically state that they personally observed Robinson possessing the drugs, because there was no statement regarding the qualifications of the sources, and because the information was stale by the time the officer applied for a search warrant.

So, because the warrant was deficient, all the evidence seized by the police in a search of Robinson’s residence should be “excluded” as the product of an invalid search.  Robinson also contended that the “good-faith exception” to the exclusionary rule should not be applied because the affidavit was so lacking in probable cause that the good-faith exception should not salvage the search, and would frustrate the basic purpose of the exclusionary rule.

The trial court was not impressed by the warrant.  The trial court stated that the information from the warrant’s sources contained “no specific time, or time frame, when the alleged illegal activity or contraband was observed”; “no facts that the informant personally observed [Robinson] in possession of contraband or personally observed seeing contraband” at the residence; and “no qualification” of the confidants’ reliability. The trial court found that the information was “stale” as to both sources and that the two sources’ statements failed to corroborate each.

On appeal, the State argued that the warrant was supported by probable cause.  Even if it was not, the State argued, then the “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule should apply to save the evidence from suppression.  Even if there was not probable cause, the officers who executed the search reasonably and in good faith relied on a facially valid search warrant pursuant to United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984); and there was no pattern of systemic negligence by them.

But the appeals court found that the warrant was deficient.  It said:  “The ‘totality of the circumstances’ test simply cannot be stretched far enough to validate this warrant. State v. Brown, 741 S.W.2d 53, 57 (Mo. App. W.D. 1987).”

The general rule is that evidence obtained as a direct result of an unlawful search or seizure is considered “fruit of the poisonous tree” and is inadmissible at trial. However, the United States Supreme Court has held that evidence obtained by police officers in objectively reasonable reliance on a subsequently invalidated search warrant should not be suppressed pursuant to the exclusionary rule. State v. Clampitt, 364 S.W.3d 605, 613 (Mo. App. W.D. 2012).  This is the rule of United States v. Leon, cited above.

The Leon case held that “[w]hen police act in reasonable reliance on a facially valid search warrant issued by a detached and neutral magistrate, the exclusionary rule will not operate to bar evidence obtained under the search warrant, even though the warrant may be invalid.”  The Leon good-faith exception has been expanded to “police mistakes that are the result of negligence as opposed to ‘systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements.'”

The appeals court acknowledged that the warrant in this case was seriously deficient.  Yet it was prepared to overlook these problems, and said:

Though wrought with ambiguity, it is possible that the requisite details needed to support a probable-cause determination were in [the police officer’s] possession and that he simply failed to list them in his affidavit. It is entirely possible that each confidential source had a long-term history of providing law enforcement with reliable information and that each source had personally and recently witnessed the events they related to the officers.

So, the appeals court was willing to give the officers the benefit of the doubt.  While it appears troubling that the appellate court was willing to make broad speculations in favor of the State, it is clear from reading the case that the court was not at all pleased with the fact that the trial court conducted the suppression hearing with little regard for the interests of the State.

There was no evidentiary hearing.  The hearing was almost cursory in its quickness.  Further, the trial judge also commented that the warrant showed a pattern of “systemic negligence in regard to the careless preparation of warrant affidavits, which is a recurring problem of law enforcement of this State.”  The appellate court was not pleased.  It found that there was no basis for this statement in the record.

Thus, the appeals court was prepared to give the State the benefit of the doubt, possibly as a remedy for the way in which the suppression hearing had been conducted by the trial court.

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