Finding of probable cause required before issuing arrest warrant, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that a "neutral and detached magistrate" or other person eligible under Ohio's criminal rules must find probable cause before issuing an arrest warrant under the Ohio Constitution and the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case revolves around arrest warrants issued for defendant Brandon Hoffman. The Toledo Police Department obtained arrest warrants for Hoffman from the court clerk's office, which did not properly make a finding of probable cause before issuing the warrants. The arrest warrants were for three misdemeanor offenses: theft, criminal damaging and "house-stripping."

Toledo police were subsequently called to a residence where they found the body of Scott Holzhauer. Neighbors advised police that Hoffman had recently visited Holzhauer. When police ran a check on Hoffman they learned about the unrelated arrest warrants and decided to execute them. Upon arrival at Hoffman's residence they were allowed inside, where they found a gun and cell phone belonging to Holzhauer. Based on this information the officers obtained a search warrant which led to the collection of additional evidence. Holzhauer was charged with aggravated murder and aggravated robbery.
At trial he moved to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of the arrest warrants on the grounds that they were obtained without a finding of probable cause. The trial court agreed that the arrest warrants were improper, but found that it was bound by a prior decision of the Sixth District Court of Appeals, State v. Overton, which upheld the validity of search warrants that were virtually identical to those at issue here. Hoffman pleaded no contest and was convicted of both charges. On appeal, the Sixth District agreed that the search warrants were improper based on the lack of a probable cause finding and overruled aspects of Overton that conflicted with that ruling. The Sixth District found that because the police acted in good faith on the validity of the arrest warrants, however, that any evidence found as a result of their issuance did not need to be excluded.

The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Sixth District, holding that "a neutral and detached magistrate or other person authorized under Crim.R. 4(A)(1) must make a
probable-cause determination before an arrest warrant can be issued" and finding that this did not happen in Hoffman's case. The Court went on to hold that despite the improper search warrants, the evidence collected should not have been excluded, stating that, "Ultimately, the arrest warrants must be viewed as improperly issued because although deputy clerks had a checklist to follow, a probable-cause determination was never made, and the complaint was rubber-stamped with no questions asked. The arresting officers themselves, however, had no reason to question or doubt the validity of Hoffman’s warrants, and they acted in good faith in relying on them. Suppression of evidence here will not serve the purposes of the exclusionary rule."

Justice Lanzinger wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, French and O'Neill. Justice O'Donnell wrote a concurring opinion, stressing that the Toledo Municipal Court must amend its process for issuing arrest warrant in light of today's ruling. Justice Pfeifer dissented, arguing that the magistrate signing off on the warrants served as a mere rubber stamp for police and that the Toledo Police Department did not have a good faith belief that the warrants were valid. As such, he concluded that any evidence arising from them should be excluded.

For more information about the case see this article from Court News Ohio.