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Two from Columbus

It doesn't take much to get an arrest warrant in Toledo, as Brian Hoffman found out.  In 2011, a city detective filed three criminal complaints and warrant requests for Hoffman, charging him with theft, criminal damaging, and "house stripping prohibited."  The complaints cited the statutes, identified the victims, locations, and property taken.  It made no mention of how Hoffman was supposed to have committed the offenses; the only thing linking him to the crimes was that the officer asked the clerk to issue the complaint against him.

Last week, in State v. Hoffman, the Supreme Court had no trouble concluding that the warrant was invalid.  Not much comfort to Hoffman, because at the same time the court affirmed his life-without- parole sentence.

How did we get there?  Fifteen days after the warrants were issued, the police got a "call for service" to a residential address, where they found a dead body.  Hoffman was identified as someone who'd been seen going to the house, so the cops executed the arrest warrants.  They went to his house, looked in the window, and saw Hoffman lying on the floor; they went inside, and found a .45 Ruger semi-automatic, which belonged to the victim, on the floor next to where Hoffman had been lying.  They got a search warrant, and found other evidence linking him to the murder. 

The key to analysis of a search issue is to begin with the defendant's first confrontation with the police.  In this case, that would the execution of the arrest warrants.  Everybody, from the trial court on up, found that the warrants were invalid, because the detective hadn't provided any information to the clerk which showed the existence of probable cause to issue the warrants.  That's the first takeaway from Hoffman:

The purpose of a complaint or affidavit is to set forth sufficient information to enable the decisionmaker to personally determine from the facts whether it is likely that an offense has been committed by the named individual. A mere conclusory statement that the person whose arrest is sought has committed a crime is insufficient to justify a finding of probable cause.

Here, all the complaints did was state that Hoffman violated the elements of the particular statute.  They did not explain how the detective concluded that Hoffman had committed the offenses.  In fact, the deputy clerk testified that not only didn't she make a probable cause determination, she didn't know what probable cause was.

So what's the problem?  The City of Toledo had been issuing arrest warrants this way for seventeen years.  More problematically for Hoffman, the 6th District had upheld the procedure in 2000.  In Hoffman's appeal, the 6th District overruled its earlier decision, but that leaves the question of whether the search could be upheld under the good-faith exception to the warrant requirement.

And there Hoffman runs smack-dab into the Supreme Court's decision three years ago in Davis v. US.  Davis, a passenger in a car, had been arrested for giving the police a false name; the cops put him in the cruiser, then searched his jacket, which was still in the car, and found a gun.  He got fifteen years for being a felon in possession of a firearm, but just a few months later, the Supreme Court handed down Arizona v. Gant, which overruled its 27-year-old ruling in Belton v. New York and held that police couldn't search the vehicle incident to an arrest if the defendant didn't have access to the car or there was no probable cause to believe that evidence of the crime would be found in the vehicle.  That did Davis no good, the Court holding that the police were entitled to rely on Belton, the law at the time of the search.  While the violation in Hoffman was more flagrant, it's hard to find any meaningful distinction with Davis

Hoffman won't be the last word on this.  As Lanzinger pointed out in oral argument, there are probably thousands of Toledo warrants like this still lying around; execution of misdemeanor warrants isn't exactly a high priority for an urban police department.  While the cops could rely on the earlier 6th District decision before, they certainly can't now.  Which means anytime they go to execute an arrest warrant, they'd better backtrack and find out what was submitted to the clerk.

Justice Pfeifer may draw out his questions in oral argument, but he certainly doesn't do it in his writing.  His opinion for a unanimous court in State v. Nolan, the other decision handed down last week, takes up all of four pages. 

The case posed the metaphysical inquiry, can a person be guilty of attempting to cause an unintended death?  Nolan had shot someone, although not very efficiently, and the State charged him not only with felonious assault, but with attempted felony murder.  As we all know, felony murder is causing the death of another as a proximate result of committing a first or second degree felony offense of violence.  It's a strict liability crime; all the State has to prove is the intent to commit the underlying felony, and once it does that, the defendant is on the hook for any resultant death, even if he had no intention of causing it.  You and Bill decide to knock over a local store, and didn't plan for the store-owner having a twelve-gauge which he uses to wax Bill?  You're going to do 15-to-life for Bill's death.

But the attempt statute has a knowing or purposeful mens rea; thus, you can't commit an attempt offense if you don't have the purpose or knowledge to commit it.  If the death is unintended, you can't have the intent to commit it.

An interesting note on Nolan.  Neither party had raised the issue, but the 11th District found it, ordered separate briefing on the subject, and reversed.  That's a good job by the court.


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