Admissibility of Evidence Obtained in Execution of a Defective Search Warrant

by Jack E. Call
Professor of Criminal Justice
Radford University

Virginia Police Legal Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 2, October 2008

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[Note:  Unless indicated otherwise, materials in quotation marks are quotes from the opinion of the court deciding the case under discussion.  Also, unless indicated otherwise, a case discussed below was decided by the United States Supreme Court.  Descriptions below of the facts of a case often quote verbatim (or at least draw heavily) from the opinion’s description of the facts or from the summary of the case provided by one of the legal reporters, such as Lexis-Nexis or]

Adams v. Commonwealth, 657 S.E.2d 87 (Virginia Supreme Court, 2-29-08)

Facts:  Early one morning in June, 2004, an officer responded to a call about a shooting in a trailer park.  Upon his arrival, the officer found the body of Hairston lying face down in the road to the trailer park.  He had been shot in the neck.  An investigator in the same department prepared and signed a criminal complaint alleging that Adams shot Hairston during an argument over money.  About 19 minutes after executing the criminal complaint before a magistrate, the investigator signed an affidavit for a search warrant submitted to the same magistrate who had approved the criminal complaint.  The affidavit stated that Hairston had received a fatal gunshot wound to his neck “while he was on Virginia Oaks Ct.”  The affidavit further stated that, based on witness statements, “the victim … was in a[sic] argument [sic] with … Adams at the time he was shot.”  The affidavit described the place to be searched by providing directions to a trailer on Virginia Oaks Court.  It indicated that the trailer “has what appears to be a video camera on the outside.”  The magistrate issued the search warrant.

The warrant should not have been issued because the warrant application established no connection between Adams and the shooting, between Adams and the trailer, or between the trailer and the shooting (other than the trailer’s proximity to where the victim’s body was found).  The Commonwealth conceded that the warrant application lacked probable cause, but argued that the police acted in good faith reliance on the search warrant, under U.S. v. Leon )(1984)Leon permits introduction of the fruits of a search conducted under the authority of an improperly issued warrant, so long as the police acted in good faith.  The police do not act in good faith if it was unreasonable for them to think that the magistrate should have issued the warrant.

Issues:  1) In making the Leon good faith determination, may the court take into account the information that the police knew had been included in the criminal complaint that had been submitted to the magistrate who also issued the search warrant?  2) If so, did the police act in good faith reliance on the warrant in this case?

Answer:  Yes, to both questions.  (4-3, opinion by Justice Kinser)

1.       The purpose of the good-faith exception is…. best accomplished by looking at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the issuance and execution of the search warrant….. While the totality of the circumstances does not include the subjective beliefs of police officers who seize evidence pursuant to a subsequently invalidated search warrant…. it does, at a minimum, take into account information known to police officers that was not included in the search warrant affidavit. To confine the good-faith analysis to the facts set forth in the four corners of the search warrant affidavit (even if the analysis also considers additional information presented to the magistrate) changes the focus of the inquiry from the objective good faith of a reasonably well-trained police officer to a magistrate's determination of probable cause. It also leads to the exclusion of competent evidence in the prosecution's case in chief even though reasonably well-trained police officers acted in objective good-faith reliance on a search warrant. This approach undermines the purposes of both the exclusionary rule and its good-faith exception.

2.       Once it is determined that the information included in the criminal complaint may be considered in making the good faith determination, the good faith question becomes a fairly easy one.  The criminal complaint establishes that the police had probable cause to think Adams had killed Hairston and that Adams lived at the address of the trailer that the search warrant application sought authorization to search.  It made the connection between the place to be searched and the crime apparent.  Therefore, it was reasonable for the officer to think there was probable cause to support the magistrate’s decision to issue the search warrant.


Disclaimer:  The content of the Virginia Police Legal Bulletin does not constitute legal advice, nor does it reflect the opinions or views of the Virginia Police Legal Advisors Committee.

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