Exclusive Exclusionary Rule: Does an Unsigned Warrant Qualify Under the Good-faith Exception?

Photo by mdfriendofhillary on Creative Commons

Sara Leonhartsberger, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against law enforcement’s unreasonable searches and seizures when investigating members of the public.[1] In furtherance of this constitutional protection, the Supreme Court of the United States created the exclusionary rule, which states that evidence collected in violation of the Fourth Amendment may be excluded from use in a prosecutor’s case at trial.[2] However, the Supreme Court further created the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, holding that police officers acting with objective reasonability in their belief of acting within the Fourth Amendment should not trigger the exclusionary rule.[3]

State v. Harrison raises the question of whether the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule should extend to police officers executing arrests with unsigned warrants.[4] Part II of this article will provide a background, discussing State v. Harrison’s procedural posture, United States Supreme Court precedent, and Supreme Court of Ohio precedent. Part III of this article will provide an analysis of State v. Harrison, a prediction of the Supreme Court of Ohio’s decision, and a concern of the good-faith exception consuming the exclusionary rule. Part IV will conclude with potential effects on the Ohio judicial system, depending how the Supreme Court of Ohio rules.

II. Background

A. State v. Harrison’s Procedural Posture

In State v. Harrison, an Ohio trial court granted a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained in search of defendant’s vehicle when that search occurred under an unsigned arrest warrant.[5] Because that evidence was material to prove the charges of drug possession, drug trafficking, and illegal possession of a firearm, the trial court also granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.[6] After the State of Ohio appealed, the Third Appellate District of Ohio held that even if the arrest warrant was deficient under Ohio Crim.R. 4(a)(1), the good-faith exception applied, rendering the trial court’s granting of defendant’s motions improper.[7] The Supreme Court of Ohio accepted discretionary appeal on November 24, 2020[8] and heard oral arguments on June 29, 2021,[9] but the Court has not released its opinion on the matter.

B. United States Supreme Court Precedent

In United States v. Leon, the Supreme Court of the United States created the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, holding that police officers that obtain evidence “in objectively reasonable reliance on a subsequently invalidated search warrant cannot justify the substantial costs of exclusion.”[10] Although the district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found insufficient probable cause for the search warrant to have been granted by the magistrate,[11] the Supreme Court held that an officer’s good-faith reliance on such a warrant superseded the exclusionary rule.[12] The Court reasoned that the exclusionary rule’s purpose—deterrence of law enforcement’s reckless disregard of the Fourth Amendment—would not be served in excluding evidence obtained by an officer acting in the scope of a believed-valid warrant.[13] However, the Court stipulated four situations that would still require the exclusionary rule’s application: (1) if the judge or magistrate was misled by the officer with information the officer knew to be false or recklessly disregarded seeking the truth; (2) if the magistrate wholly abandoned his judicial role to the extent no reasonable officer would trust the warrant’s validity; (3) if the affidavit premising the warrant was “so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable;” or (4) if the warrant was so facially deficient of necessary facts that no officer would reasonably believe it to be valid.[14]

In Herring v. United States, the Supreme Court extended the good-faith exception to officers that arrest defendants with invalid warrants based on clerical errors.[15] Although officers in this case arrested the defendant with a rescinded warrant, the Court held the isolated negligence of the adjacent county to remove the warrant from their database did not constitute a Fourth Amendment violation worthy of exclusionary rule sanction.[16] The Court reiterated Leon’s directive that “the exclusionary rule serves to deter deliberate, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct, or in some circumstances recurring or systemic negligence.”[17] An isolated incident of clerical error did not rise to such a level.[18]

In Davis v. United States, the Supreme Court further extended the good-faith exception to officers who acted within binding appellate precedent at the time of arrest that was later ruled unconstitutional.[19] Although the officers’ method of searching the defendant’s vehicle without a warrant after he was arrested and removed from the vehicle was later deemed unconstitutional,[20] Court reasoned that the officers were acting with good-faith at the time of arrest, as the Eleventh Circuit’s precedent at the time allowed such searches.[21] Penalizing officers for acting in accordance with the current law, the Court reasoned, would not serve the deterrence rationale of the exclusionary rule.[22]

C. Ohio Precedent

In State v. Wilmoth, the Supreme Court of Ohio adopted Leon’s good-faith exception, holding that a technically defective warrant nonetheless did not trigger the exclusionary rule when the officers acted with objectively reasonable reliance.[23] The trial court had granted the defendants’ motions to suppress because the warrant lacked the required written affidavits under Fed.R.Crim.P. 41(C), and the oral affidavits of the officers had not been sworn under oath as required by the United States Constitution and Ohio Constitution.[24] Pursuant to Leon’s reasoning, however, the Court found that the officers had acted with objectively reasonable reliance, in that (1) failure to provide a written affidavit did not rise to a constitutional violation; (2) no bad faith was evidenced, and the urgency of the circumstances had to be weighed; (3) there was sufficient evidence presented to the magistrate for him to find probable cause; and (4) there was “no fundamental violation and the oral affidavit complied with the ‘spirit’ of Fed.R.Crim.P. 41(C).”[25]

In State v. Hoffman, the Ohio Supreme Court held that warrants issued without determination of probable cause were nonetheless valid because the officers reasonably relied on a procedure validated by the Sixth District Court of Appeals.[26] Although the officer had submitted warrants so lacking in information that the deputy clerk could not have determined probable cause,[27] the Court reasoned that the officers had relied on the Sixth District’s precedent established in State v. Overton that permitted a similar warrant to be implemented.[28] Much like Davis, although the Sixth District explicitly overruled Overton on Hoffman’s appeal due to its unconstitutionality, the Court held that officers that had followed Overton’s precedent during Hoffman’s arrest had acted in good faith, precluding the exclusionary rule.[29]

III. Discussion

A. State v. Harrison

In State v. Harrison, the Ohio Third Appellate District held that evidence obtained with an unsigned warrant, although invalid under Crim.R. 4(a)(1), nonetheless did not qualify for exclusion when officers acted in good-faith reliance.[30] The trial court had granted defendant’s motion to suppress and motion to dismiss after evidence[31] produced from a search of defendant’s vehicle occurred with an unsigned warrant.[32] While the complaint attached to the warrant contained the magistrate’s signature to signify probable cause, the warrant itself did not contain the deputy clerk’s signature.[33] Testimony at trial from both the officer and Municipal Court clerk explained that the clerk’s routine practice involved signing warrants after arrest.[34] The officers and clerk had developed the system after potential suspects viewed the warrants on their online filing system and evaded arrest.[35]

The Third Appellate District first examined whether an unsigned warrant violated Crim.R. 4(a)(1).[36] The court reasoned that the rule’s language did not expressly provide warrants had to be signed in order to be valid.[37] Furthermore, it considered the State’s argument that the signed complaint and affidavit were attached to the warrant, and the “package” therefore made the warrant valid.[38] While the court found this reasoning logical, it also found the obverse reasoning—that the warrant itself must be signed and therefore valid within its own four corners—to be equally logical.[39]

However, the court ultimately held that, even if it considered the unsigned warrant to be invalid under Crim.R. 4(a)(1), the officer had exercised objectively reasonable reliance in executing the warrant that precluded the exclusionary rule.[40] Citing Hoffman’s inclusion of warrants invalidated by non-probable cause, the court reasoned that the officer in Harrison had executed a warrant with a judge-initialed complaint attached, indicating probable cause.[41] Furthermore, the court cited both Leon and Wilmoth to find that the exclusionary rule’s rationale—deterrence of reckless police disregard of the Fourth Amendment—would not apply to the Harrison officer’s conduct.[42] However, the court criticized the current system, calling for a separate protocol to be developed that would avoid public exposure of the warrants yet prevent service of unsigned warrants at the time of arrest.[43]

B. Predicted Ohio Supreme Court Decision

Based on the United States Supreme Court and Supreme Court of Ohio’s good-faith exception jurisprudence, the unsigned warrant in State v. Harrison will likely be held a valid extension of the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule.[44] Under the Leon exclusionary rule factors, the officer in Harrison did not mislead the magistrate, the magistrate did not act outside their judicial role, the affidavit was not lacking in indicia, and the warrant itself was not lacking necessary facts (unless one considers the signature to be a necessary fact).[45] Like Wilmoth, while the unsigned warrant may be considered technically deficient, the officer had objective reason to believe the warrant was valid under the judge’s complaint signature.[46] However, Herring provides one consideration that a potential dissent to the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Harrison might advocate.[47] Herring provided that isolated negligence would be insufficient to trigger the deterrence rationale of the exclusionary rule, yet systemic negligence might.[48] While the municipal court provided rationale for their practice of unsigned warrants, one could contend that service of unsigned warrants in a field that sanctions practitioners for unsigned documents would rise to systemic negligence. Furthermore, life and liberty interests are often at stake when search and arrest warrants are issued; should those interests be so easily set aside for Constitutional violations that are deemed “reasonable”?

C. Exception Swallowing the Rule Concerns

Observing the vast latitude afforded to law enforcement in executing search warrants through the good-faith exception, a concern emerges that the good-faith exception will preclude the exclusionary rule entirely. While the balance between enforcing Fourth Amendment adherence and including all pertinent evidence to ensure justice must be weighed, the expansive good-faith exception could encourage law enforcement’s negligent behavior. Furthermore, while violations of other Amendments rise to the level of remand or changed law, Fourth Amendment violations are broadly permitted under the good-faith exception. Should the same Constitution that accords safeguards for criminal defendants in the Sixth Amendment be reasonably read to permit broad violations against these same defendants in the Fourth Amendment?

IV. Conclusion

Dependent on the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Harrison, the Ohio judicial system will either extend the good-faith exception to yet another area or will deter law enforcement from search and seizure with unsigned warrants.[49] While extension would be supported by the United States Supreme Court and Supreme Court of Ohio’s jurisprudence, a decision in Harrison’s favor would accord with the rationale that law enforcement cannot systematically neglect adherence to the Fourth Amendment.[50] In other areas of law,[51] unsigned documentation can lead to sanctions or untimeliness; would it not accord with both legal and lay reasoning that a continuous constitutional violation would rise to equal ramifications?


[1] U.S. Const. amend. IV. 

[2] Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 398 (1914).

[3] United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 922 (1984).

[4] State v. Harrison, 2020-Ohio-3920 (3rd Dist. Logan, No. 8-19-48) ¶ 12.

[5] Id. at ¶¶ 1, 5.

[6] Id. at ¶ 1.

[7] Id. at ¶ 34.

[8] State v. Harrison, 2020-Ohio-5332, 2020 Ohio LEXIS 2569 (Nov. 24, 2020).

[9] Supreme Court of Ohio – Case No. 2020-1117 State v. Harrison, The Ohio Channel, https://ohiochannel.org/video/supreme-court-of-ohio-case-no-2020-1117-state-v-harrison (last visited Oct. 8, 2021), [https://perma.cc/99ET-JEJD].

[10] United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 922 (1984).

[11] Id. at 903-04.

[12] Id. at 922.

[13] Id. at 920-21.

[14] Id. at 923.

[15] Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 137 (2009).

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 144.

[18] Id.

[19] Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 232 (2011).

[20] Id. at 234-235.

[21] Id. at 240.

[22] Id. at 241.

[23] State v. Wilmoth, 22 Ohio St. 3d 251, 252 (1986).  

[24] Id. at 254.

[25] Id. at 264.

[26] 2014-Ohio-4795, ¶ 1.

[27] Id. at ¶ 6.

[28] Id.; State v. Overton, No. L-99-1317, 2000 Ohio App. LEXIS 3919, at *7 (Ohio Ct. App. Sep. 1, 2000) (holding that a similar level of detail in a warrant was sufficient to establish probable cause).

[29] Id. at ¶ 42.

[30] State v. Harrison, 2020-Ohio-3920 (3rd Dist. Logan, No. 8-19-48) ¶ 34.

[31] A loaded and stolen 9mm pistol, $6,225 in cash, and 7.39 grams of cocaine that were produced as evidence for illegal possession of a firearm, illegal drug possession, and illegal drug trafficking. Id. at ¶ 5-6.

[32] Id. at ¶ 7.

[33] Id. at ¶ 8.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id. at ¶ 24.

[37] Id.

[38] Id. at ¶ 25.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. at ¶ 33.

[41] Id. at ¶ 32.

[42] Id. at ¶ 30-31.

[43] Id. at ¶ 26.

[44] United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 922 (1984); Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 137 (2009); Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 232 (2011); State v. Wilmoth, 22 Ohio St. 3d 251, 252 (1986); State v. Hoffman, 2014-Ohio-4795, ¶ 1.

[45] Leon, 468 U.S. at 923.

[46] Wilmoth, 22 Ohio St. 3d at 252.

[47] Herring, 555 U.S. at 144.

[48] Id.

[49] Harrison, 2020-Ohio-3920 at ¶ 33.

[50] United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 922 (1984); Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 137 (2009); Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 232 (2011); State v. Wilmoth, 22 Ohio St. 3d 251, 252 (1986); State v. Hoffman, 2014-Ohio-4795, ¶ 1. But see Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 144 (2009).

[51] See, e.g., Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(a) (unsigned documents stricken from the court record).