A recent Ohio Supreme Court case revealed a disturbing practice by some county courts in Ohio — including Franklin County — of issuing arrest warrants without probable cause. Warrants have been essentially rubber stamped by court clerks who never verified that the officer had probable cause to arrest the person, and in the case of one Toledo Municipal Court deputy clerk didn’t even know what probable cause was.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution, both protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Part of that protection includes a statement that no warrant shall be issued “but on probable cause.” However, some counties have been using a boilerplate form that an officer fills out and a clerk (or deputy clerk) approves without an affidavit or supporting information attached.
In State v. Hoffman, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-4795, the Ohio Supreme Court looked at a Toledo case in which a man was arrested for aggravated murder and aggravated robbery based on evidence that was found when police executed three misdemeanor arrest warrants that were active against him.
When the police got the misdemeanor arrest warrants against Brandon Hoffman, the officer provided only the suspect’s name, address, other identifying information, a citation to the statute alleged to have been violated, the name of the offense, the classification of the offense, and the date it allegedly occurred. For example, one of Hoffman’s warrants simply stated that Hoffman took property of another person without consent, and listed the type of property and the location.
However, the Ohio Supreme Court found that simply stating that a person is believed to have committed a crime is not sufficient probable cause for an arrest warrant. The warrant needs to contain information that led to the determination that the person committed a crime — enough information that the clerk or magistrate issuing the warrant can make an independent determination whether it’s likely the person did commit the crime. “A mere conclusory statement that the person whose arrest is sought has committed a crime is insufficient to justify a finding of probable cause. It is also not enough that probable cause may later be determined to exist.” State v. Hoffman, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-4795, at 8. Valid support for probable cause could include a statement by the police officer that he or she witnessed the crime, or a summary of testimony from witnesses to support the allegation that the suspect committed the crime.
The court in Hoffman found that the arrest warrants were invalid — and that presents sweeping implications for any arrest warrant issued prior to Nov. 4, the date of the Hoffman decision, using the same procedures as those used by the Toledo Municipal Court. Any defendant who was arrested on a warrant that did not include a determination of probable cause now has an avenue to challenge his or her arrest in court.
It should be noted, however, that the Ohio Supreme Court did not allow the evidence found when Hoffman was arrested using the faulty warrants to be excluded from court. The court found that the evidence that led to the aggravated murder and aggravated robber charges could still be admitted because police had a good faith basis to believe the warrants were valid once the deputy clerk issued them. So ultimately his no contest plea to the two felony charges and his sentence of life without parole stood.
In Franklin County, the Municipal Court has recently amended its forms so that an arrest warrant now requires an independent determination by a clerk or magistrate that probable cause exists for the arrest, and any arrest warrants issued before Nov. 4 are subject to review.
If you’ve been arrested for a crime, the Columbus criminal defense lawyers at Luftman, Heck & Associates can help. Call us at (614) 500-3836 for a free consultation today.