February 6, 2013
Warrantly Arrests

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

When three detectives of the Summit County Sheriff’s Department knocked on Jillian D. Hobbs’s door in 2009, none of them knew that subsequent events would lead to a case that would eventually come before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio.

The detectives were there to ask Hobbs about a recent burglary in the neighborhood in which she had been implicated. Hobbs invited them inside, but after hearing the purpose of their visit, Hobbs and her boyfriend stepped outside to speak privately. When Hobbs returned, she confessed to the detectives that she had committed the burglary, and the detectives arrested her.

One of the detectives drew up a complaint charging Hobbs with burglary, an arrest warrant based on the complaint, and an affidavit swearing to the facts in the complaint. The detective submitted the paperwork to the deputy clerk of the Barberton Municipal Court, which is located within the jurisdiction of the Summit County Sheriff’s Department.

As it turns out, the deputy clerk is also employed as a sergeant by the Summit County Sheriff’s Department. After reviewing the papers, the deputy clerk had the arresting officer swear an oath on the affidavit. The deputy clerk determined that probable cause existed for Hobbs’s arrest and signed the warrant. The complaint was filed with the court the next morning, and Hobbs was indicted on a burglary charge.

Hobbs eventually filed a motion to suppress the evidence of her arrest and any statements stemming from the incident and to dismiss the charges against her. She argued that the warrant for her arrest was invalid because it was based on a finding of probable cause made by a magistrate who was not neutral and detached due to his dual role as a law-enforcement officer and clerk of the court.

The trial court agreed that the warrant wasn’t properly issued, but it denied the motion to suppress, concluding that no evidence had come to light as a result of the warrant, and therefore there was nothing to suppress. Hobbs then pled no contest and was sentenced accordingly.

On appeal, Hobbs maintained that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress and to dismiss. But the court of appeals affirmed the trial court ruling. After that, her case came before us for a final review.

The first question before us was whether a person acting in the dual capacities of deputy sheriff for a county and deputy clerk for a municipal court located in the same county can determine the existence of probable cause to issue a valid warrant.

The general rule is that because a warrant has traditionally represented “an independent assurance that a search and arrest will not proceed without probable cause ... an issuing magistrate must meet two tests.” First, the magistrate must be neutral and detached, and second, the magistrate must be capable of determining whether probable cause exists for the requested arrest.

The United States Supreme Court has considered this issue in similar cases and concluded that a magistrate is not neutral and detached if that magistrate is also the law enforcement officer in charge of the investigation.

The need for separating the executive function of law enforcement from the judicial function of determining probable cause has previously been affirmed in Ohio. Over 25 years ago, a court of appeals determined that a deputy clerk for a municipality was not a neutral and detached magistrate because she was also a dispatcher employed by the police department.

The Ohio Attorney General has also expressed similar concerns regarding the separation required between the function of law enforcement and the judicial function of determining probable cause. The attorney general has declared that a clerk of a county or municipal court may not appoint deputy sheriffs of that same county as deputy clerks of the court.

In this case, the trial court and the court of appeals observed that there were no facts to suggest that the deputy clerk acted improperly or that he lacked impartiality. Nor did the facts suggest any lack of probable cause for the warrantless arrest. In fact, Hobbs never disputed that the deputy clerk was not neutral or detached or that there was no probable cause for her warrantless arrest.

Despite these circumstances, the deputy clerk’s dual position creates an inappropriate tension between the executive function of law enforcement and the judicial function of determining probable cause.

The dual-capacity position blurs the separation and threatens the independence of the executive and judicial functions. And it places the deputy clerk at risk of divided loyalties and conflicting duties. The result is that the deputy clerk lacks the requisite neutrality and detachment to make the probable-cause determination necessary for issuing a valid warrant.

Accordingly, we concluded that a person in a dual capacity such as the deputy clerk in this case is not a neutral and detached magistrate for purposes of determining whether probable cause exists for issuing an arrest warrant. Thus, by a seven-to-zero vote, we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

The other issue that was before us was whether the “exclusionary rule” should be invoked in this matter. The exclusionary rule operates to exclude, or suppress, evidence that is derived from police conduct that violated constitutional protections.

The appropriate remedy for a defective warrant issued subsequent to a warrantless arrest is the suppression of wrongly obtained evidence, and not dismissal of the charges. The United States Supreme Court has observed that an “illegal arrest, without more, has never been viewed as a bar to subsequent prosecution, nor as a defense to a valid conviction.”

In addition, as the trial court concluded, there was no evidence obtained as a result of the improperly issued arrest warrant. According to the arresting officer, the arrest was predicated primarily upon the pre-arrest confession, and no other evidence was obtained subsequent to the arrest. The court of appeals reached similar conclusions. We therefore concluded that the invalid warrant led to no evidence subject to suppression.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State v. Hobbs, 133 Ohio St.3d 43, 2012-Ohio-3886. Case Nos. 2011-1504 and 2011-1593. Decided May 9, 2012. Majority opinion written by Justice Robert R. Cupp.