The Ohio Supreme Court recently ruled that evidence seized in a trash pull can be used to establish probable cause for a search warrant; however, courts must consider the “totality of the circumstances” when deciding whether probable cause exists.
In State v. Jones, Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-483 (Feb. 12, 2015), the court found that evidence from a trash pull should not have been suppressed in a Cleveland drug case in which a narcotics detective partly relied on the evidence to arrest a woman in connection with a meth manufacturing operation.
In State v. Jones, investigators used a number of events to connect Lauren B. Jones to suspected drug trafficking activity at a home in Cleveland:
- There had been a meth manufacturing arrest at the home in October 2011
- Jones made a burglary report at the same address in December of that year
- The man arrested in the burglary was a known meth manufacturer.
- Police received information from a confidential informant that a woman named Lauren who allegedly matched Jones’s description was involved in manufacturing and selling meth in Cleveland.
- Another woman identified as a meth cook by six people involved in manufacturing and selling meth reportedly had moved her manufacturing operation to the street where Jones had reported the burglary
- Two detectives spotted Jones sitting next to the other woman in the courthouse lobby in Cleveland in March 2012
Using this information, detectives went to the address where Jones had reported the burglary and grabbed the trash can that was sitting on the curb. They took it back to the police station to sift through the garbage inside the can, and found mail addressed to Jones at that address, as well as some empty containers for chemicals used in meth production and plastic tubing with meth residue.
After the trash pull, the officers got a search warrant for the home, where they found evidence of meth production and evidence linking Jones to the operation. She was indicted on eight felony drug counts.
Jones’s lawyers tried to get the evidence from the search warrant suppressed on the argument that there was no probable cause to issue the warrant. The trial court agreed, and said one trash pull wasn’t enough to establish probable cause. That court said more investigation was needed, and noted that there had been no controlled drug buys, surveillance at the address, or unusual activity seen at the house. The search warrant also contained no averment that Jones had been seen engaging in criminal activity.
The trial court’s decision, and a later 8th District Appellate Court, was based on previous precedent in State v. Weimer, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 92094, 2009-Ohio-498, that said the evidence from the trash pull had to be reviewed on its own and separately from the other evidence in the case. However, the Ohio Supreme Court in State v. Jones found that the trial court had mischaracterized the ruling in Weimer and unduly broadened that earlier decision. Instead, the Ohio Supreme Court said that the trash pull should have been reviewed in totality with the other evidence used to establish probable cause for the search warrant.
What that means for criminal defense cases is that it’s now a little harder in Ohio to challenge the use of a single trash pull as the basis for probable cause for a search warrant. In a case in which the evidence found in someone’s trash was insufficient on its own to establish probable cause, a good criminal defense lawyer could have argued to keep the evidence found in the person’s home or using any resulting search warrant out of court — and then have a strong position from which to argue for a dismissal of the case, or to negotiate with prosecutors for a reduced charge. However, when the trash pull is considered alongside any other evidence, such as information from a confidential informant, the search warrant is more likely to stand up to scrutiny.
The Columbus criminal defense lawyers at Luftman, Heck & Associates offer experienced and zealous representation for people charged with a range of Ohio criminal offenses. If you’ve been charged, call us today at (614) 500-3836 for a free consultation.