What happens if a search warrant has a mistake in it?
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Leed. In Leed, the Court held that a statement contained in one paragraph of a search warrant affidavit, which when read in context of the entire affidavit appears to be an inadvertent error, does not render the affiant’s information stale and therefore lacking in probable cause.
The Facts of Commonwealth v. Leed
Leed involved the use of confidential informants. A detective with the Lancaster County Drug Task Force spoke with a confidential informant who claimed that the defendant was selling large quantities of cocaine and marijuana in Lancaster. The CI claimed to have recently purchased cocaine from the defendant and that the defendant lived at a certain address in Lancaster.
Some time later, a different detective met with a second CI who also claimed that the defendant was selling powder cocaine and marijuana. Both CIs identified the defendant from driver’s license photos. Later, a Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) Agent spoke with a third individual, who told them that the defendant had been using a storage locker at a storage facility in Lancaster. The DEA agents confirmed that the defendant had rented that storage locker and recently visited it. One of the detectives then requested that a K9 unit conduct a sweep of the storage locker, and the dog gave a positive response to the locker.
Based on this information, the Lancaster County detectives obtained a search warrant for the storage unit. When detectives executed the search warrant, they found 15 pounds of marijuana, $9,900 in cash, plastic bags, a scale, a bank statement, income tax return, and other personal documents in the locker. They then obtained an additional search warrant for the defendant’s bank records.
Police charged the defendant with Possession with the Intent to Deliver and arrested him. While he was in custody in the county prison, the defendant made a phone call to his mother and said incriminating things in the phone call. Prison phone calls are obviously recorded. Based on the confessions in the phone call, police obtained a third search warrant for the defendant’s mother’s home, where they found more money and a cell phone.
The Motion to Suppress
The defendant moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the information in the search warrant application was stale and therefore lacking in probable cause. Specifically, the defendant focused on a mistake in the warrant's accompanying Affidavit of Probable Cause. In the warrant, the detective mistakenly wrote that the police conducted the K9 sniff of the storage locker on March 21, 2013 instead of March 21, 2014, meaning that the sniff would have taken place more than a year before the search warrant was executed. This would arguably have made the information stale as the fact that the locker may have contained drugs in it a year earlier does not really mean that it is likely to still contain drugs a year later.
The Trial Court's Ruling
The trial court held a hearing on the motion to suppress. The Commonwealth called the detective to testify that the March 21, 2013 date was an error and he really meant March 21, 2014. The defendant objected on the basis that extrinsic testimony should not have been permitted because challenges to search warrants are usually limited to the information contained within the four corners of the affidavit. Nonetheless, the court permitted the detective to testify that he had made a drafting mistake.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The court agreed that it could not consider the detective’s testimony because the only thing that mattered was the actual text of the affidavit. The court, however, found that a common sense reading of the affidavit as a whole suggested that the date was a typo and that the canine sniff had taken place more recently. Therefore, the court concluded that the information was not stale and that there was probable cause to issue the warrant for the storage unit. The defendant ultimately proceeded to trial on the drug charges and was found guilty of Possession with the Intent to Deliver. The court sentenced him to 20 to 60 months’ imprisonment, and the defendant appealed.
The Criminal Appeal
The Superior Court affirmed the trial court's ruling, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately agreed to review the case. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the Commonwealth and upheld the trial court’s decision. It recognized that search warrants may only be issued based on probable cause. The magistrate or judge who signs off on the warrant may consider only the affidavit of probable cause provided by the detective who applies for the warrant. The Court also noted that the age of the information supporting a warrant application is a factor in determining probable cause. If the information relied upon is too old, then the information is stale, and probable cause may no longer exist. However, staleness is not determined by age alone. Instead, the magistrate (and subsequently the suppression court) must consider the totality of the circumstances in evaluating whether information is stale and probable cause exists. Finally, when a defendant in Pennsylvania challenges a search by arguing that the search warrant lacked probable cause, the only evidence that the suppression court may consider is the affidavit which was prepared in support of the search warrant application. The suppression court should provide deference to the magistrate’s decision, but if the warrant was clearly lacking in probable cause, then the results of the search should be suppressed.
The Court ultimately concluded that the typo with respect to the date of the K9 search did not invalidate the rest of the warrant. The purpose of requiring a search warrant to be based on probable cause is to ensure that police do not act arbitrarily or without sufficient information to justify intrusion into a constitutionally protected area. At the same time, where police clearly have probable cause, obtained a warrant, and simply made a typo which appears to be an obvious mistake based on the other information contained in the warrant, the police should not be punished for the typo. Otherwise, police will respond by being as vague as possible so that they cannot be punished later for typos and other drafting mistakes.
Therefore, the Court held that where the substance of an affidavit, read as a whole, evidences that there is a substantial likelihood that a specific paragraph contains an error, such that any reasonable possibility that the police will act without the requisite probable cause is eliminated, the error will not be viewed in isolation and the warrant will be deemed valid, so long as the probable cause affidavit is otherwise sufficient. Accordingly, an obvious typo will not be enough to defeat an otherwise valid search warrant. At the same time, major mistakes in a warrant or mistakes which are not obviously typos could still lead to a successful challenge to a search. Here, the court found that it was obvious that the detectives made a mistake because the warrant was otherwise in chronological order. Therefore, the court ruled against the defendant.
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