You Can Still Be Convicted Despite An Invalid Search Warrant

You may have heard you can win your case if the evidence against you was obtained based on an invalid search warrant.  But, as a recent case demonstrates, that’s not always true.

In State v. Smith, Mr. Smith was charged with multiple drug offenses and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The evidence was acquired from a search of Smith’s property pursuant to a warrant based on his former girlfriend’s allegations he possessed illegal drugs and firearms.

Smith subsequently filed a motion to suppress challenging the sufficiency of the search warrant affidavit. The same judge who had approved the warrant concluded she should not have signed the warrant in the first place. The judge reasoned because the affiant was a disgruntled ex-girlfriend, independent corroborating evidence was required to establish probable cause.  The judge also rejected the State’s alternative argument the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule rendered the evidence admissible even if the search warrant lacked probable cause.  Smith’s motion to suppress was granted, meaning the State would not be able to use the evidence obtained during the search of his home and would therefore have to drop his case.  The State then appealed.

On appeal, the court first noted while the Fourth Amendment requires a search warrant must be based on probable cause, use of evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment does not itself violate the Constitution. Rather, as the court further noted, the exclusionary rule is “a judicially created remedy designed to safeguard Fourth Amendment rights generally through its deterrent effect, rather than a personal constitutional right of the party aggrieved.” United States v. Calandra, 414 U.S. 338, 348 (1974).

The court then noted because deterring police misconduct is the goal of the exclusionary rule, where the police act under the authority of a warrant later invalidated for lack of probable cause, the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule bars suppression of the evidence unless “a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal despite the magistrate’s authorization.” United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 922 n.23 (1984). “[S]uppressing evidence when a law enforcement officer presents information to a neutral magistrate and then acts in objectively reasonable reliance on the magistrate’s decision, benefits neither the officer who acts on the warrant or the public in general.” State v. Sabourin, 39 So. 3d 376, 384 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010).

The court further noted the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule generally applies unless (1) the issuing judge “was misled by information in an affidavit that the affiant knew was false or would have known was false except for his reckless disregard of the truth”; (2) the issuing judge “wholly abandoned” her neutral role as a gatekeeper; (3) the warrant rested on an affidavit “so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable”; or (4) the warrant was so facially deficient that the executing officers could not reasonably presume it to be valid. Leon, 468 U.S. at 923. When the third circumstance is at issue, as the appellate court found in Mr. Smith’s case, a lack of probable cause is not enough to render the exclusionary rule inapplicable. Wingate v. State, 289 So. 3d 566, 569 (Fla. 1st DCA 2020). Rather, the search warrant affidavit must be so deficient that it does not support even a “colorable argument” that probable cause exists. Id.

Applying these principles, the appellate court found even if the original probable cause determination were incorrect, the search warrant affidavit created at least a “colorable argument” that probable cause existed.  And the court concluded the affidavit was not so obviously deficient that the officers’ reliance on it was objectively unreasonable, noting it described the basis of the ex-girlfriend’s personal knowledge of Smith’s criminal activity and included her detailed description of where and how the contraband was kept. The affidavit also included facts supporting her veracity, and her potential bias.  The court found that having submitted all of the pertinent information to a neutral magistrate, the officers reasonably relied on the resulting search warrant in good faith. The court therefore concluded the trial court erred in granting Smith’s motion to suppress.

If your arrest is based on evidence obtained pursuant to a search warrant, you should consult with a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney knowledgeable about the current  requirements for valid search warrants.  If you do, you will have the best chance of getting your charges reduced or dropped and avoiding a felony conviction, jail or prison.  Call me for a free case strategy session to discuss how I can best help you with your search warrant issues in Jacksonville, Fernandina Beach, Yulee, Macclenny, Green Cove Springs, Middleburg, St. Augustine or surrounding areas.


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