July 17, 2013
Unjustified Seizures

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

On March 17, 2010, Officer David House of the Dayton Police Department was in an unmarked cruiser patrolling a “high crime” neighborhood when he observed a pick-up truck with plates from outside Montgomery County. He followed it because he believed that people from outside the county came to Dayton to buy illegal drugs.

A computer check confirmed that the truck was registered to someone from Clinton County with a drug-related conviction. House followed the truck as it pulled into a driveway. Two men got out and went inside the home. After 15 minutes of observation, House left the scene. When he returned three hours later the truck was still there, and so was a car.

The car was registered to Richard Easter, a Caucasian male, with an outstanding arrest warrant for failing to appear at a Butler County trial on a drug case. Soon after, two African-American men emerged from the house and went to the car. One, Damaad Gardner, got in the front passenger seat; the other sat in the back. Another man then left the house and took the driver’s seat. It was Richard Easter.

House followed Easter with the intent to call a marked cruiser to stop the vehicle, confirm that Easter was driving, and arrest him on the outstanding warrant. But before he could do that, Easter pulled into a gas station, parked the car, and bought cigarettes.

Wearing a police-issued vest that bore his badge and a police logo in large letters, House approached Easter.  Easter admitted his identity. While standing near the driver’s side door, House handcuffed and arrested Easter.

House noticed that Gardner was moving inside the car and appeared to be getting ready to exit. House walked around the car and saw Gardner rise from the seat and reach into the back of his shorts. House shouted to Gardner to place his hands on the dashboard. Gardner complied.

House ordered Gardner out of the car and handcuffed him. He told Gardner he wasn’t under arrest; he was only handcuffed for the officer’s safety. He then patted down Gardner and detected something he suspected to be crack cocaine in Gardner’s buttocks.

House placed Gardner under arrest and removed the contraband. Before Miranda warnings were given, Gardner stated, “He gave it to me to hide it.”

After other officers arrived, Gardner was taken into custody. Police then determined that he was the subject of an arrest warrant for a traffic violation. Gardner was eventually indicted on one count of possession of crack cocaine.  He filed an unsuccessful motion to have the trial court suppress the cocaine found in his possession.

Gardner pleaded no contest, and upon his conviction he filed an appeal. The court of appeals reversed his conviction. The court found that there was no evidence showing “when and how the officers discovered Gardner’s name or that there was a warrant,” and whether the court found facts justifying a patdown.

After the court of appeals ruling, the case came before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio.

More than 100 years ago, the United States Supreme Court said, “No right is held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded, by the common law, than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law.”

Thus, both the United States and Ohio Constitutions forbid searches and seizures without warrants, except in a few narrow circumstances. As the Supreme Court has explained, “The Fourth Amendment protects the privacy and personal security of individuals from arbitrary and oppressive interference by limiting the search-and-seizure authority of law enforcement officials. The standard against which the Fourth Amendment requires that we judge the validity of a search or seizure is one of reasonableness in light of the totality of the circumstances.”

But in this case, the state cast aside these core concepts and insisted that an individual who is the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant has no privacy interests and thus no standing to challenge a search by police. In making its assertions, the state relied on a string of cases that stood for the proposition that an individual subject to an arrest warrant has “no reasonable expectation of privacy in being free from being stopped arbitrarily by police” because the warrant is the embodiment of a court’s command to arrest the individual.

Under that reasoning, “the mere existence of an outstanding warrant ... renders a seizure lawful, whether or not the officer is aware of the warrant at the time of the seizure.”

It’s true that a person subject to an arrest warrant doesn’t enjoy the full complement of privacy rights that other individuals enjoy. An arrest warrant authorizes the police to enter an individual's home to seize him, but that authority presupposes that the police knew there was a warrant for the arrest when entering the home.

As Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote in our majority opinion, “We will not condone the notion that the unlawfulness of an improper arrest or seizure always can be purged by the fortuitous subsequent discovery of an arrest warrant.

“In so holding, we recognize that Gardner was the subject of an outstanding warrant (albeit for a traffic violation) and that he had possessed crack cocaine. But efforts ‘to bring the guilty to punishment, praiseworthy as they are, are not to be aided by the sacrifice of those great principles established by years of endeavor and suffering which have resulted in their embodiment in the fundamental law of the land.’

“There is always a temptation in criminal cases to let the end justify the means, but as guardians of the constitution, we must resist that temptation. After all, Fourth Amendment freedoms are not second-class rights; they are indispensable to all members of a free society.”

Therefore, by a seven-to-zero vote, we affirmed the court of appeals’ judgment to reverse Gardner’s conviction and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State v. Gardner, 135 Ohio St.3d 99, 2012-Ohio-5683. Case No. 2011-2134. Decided December 6, 2012. Majority opinion written by Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.