Probate judges cannot issue criminal search warrants in Ohio, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled yesterday that probate judges are not permitted to issue criminal search warrants under Ohio law. The cases before the Court involved a Stark County probate judge who issued warrants to search a business for evidence of illegal gambling. As a result, the police seized more than 30 video slot machines. The defendants filed motions to suppress the evidence, claiming that the warrants were invalid because probate judges lack authority under O.R.C. 2933.21 to issue criminal search warrants, and, as such, the evidence seized was not admissible.

The trial court granted the motions, and the state appealed. The 5th District Court of Appeals found that probate judges lack authority to issue criminal search warrants, but reversed the order suppressing the evidence, finding that the police had acted in good-faith reliance on the warrant. The state appealed, arguing that while Ohio law expressly excludes probate judges from having the authority to issue these warrants, the statutes were drafted or codified in error when an amendment made probate courts a subdivision of common pleas courts in 1968.

The Ohio Supreme Court rejected this argument, finding that the plain language of the statute precluding probate judges from issuing these warrants is unambiguous and thus it is "inappropriate to examine legislative history, legislative intent, public policy, or any other factors to determine the meaning of (the) statute." The Court noted that more than 45 years had passed since the passage of the amendment, and concluded that was adequate time in which the General Assembly could have corrected any errors which may exist.  The Court also agreed with the 5th District that the evidence in this case could be admitted, finding that that officers acted in good-faith reliance on a warrant obtained from a neutral and detached magistrate in accordance with United States v. Leon

Justice O'Neill drafted the opinion for the Court. Justices O’Connor, Pfeifer and Lanzinger concurred and Justices O’Donnell, Kennedy, and French concurred in judgment only. For more information about the case see this article from Court News Ohio.