Supreme Court of Ohio must safeguard liberty interests impinged by unsigned arrest warrants

Photo by Tim Hüfner on Unsplash

Max Londberg, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

In late June, the Supreme Court of Ohio held oral argument in State of Ohio v. Kandale L. Harrison.[1] The Court, which has yet to release its decision, could settle the validity of an unsigned arrest warrant.[2] If the Court follows its own precedent regarding a search warrant, it will deem an unsigned arrest warrant void ab initio, or from the beginning.[3] In Williams, the Court foreclosed the possibility that evidence recovered under such a warrant could avoid the exclusionary rule by the good-faith exception.[4] The Court should rule similarly here. As Harrison convincingly argued, the liberty interest at stake under arrest warrants should qualify for more protection than the privacy interest at stake under search warrants.[5] Holding otherwise would follow a long and dehumanizing trend in American law and law enforcement that elevates property interests over liberty.[6] In addition, the State’s attempt to distinguish search warrants from arrest warrants to argue that the latter does not require a signature is unpersuasive.

The next section will detail the factual and legal issues animating the Harrison case. The third section will discuss why the State’s arguments fail and why the Court should follow its precedent by holding that an unsigned arrest warrant is void ab initio.

II. Background

The Logan County Sheriff’s Office targeted Kandale L. Harrison in a controlled drug buy in 2018.[7] Harrison allegedly sold cocaine to a confidential informant.[8] Police sought an arrest warrant.[9] The Bellefontaine Municipal Court provided police with a blank warrant form, lacking both a signature and other information required by statute, such as Harrison’s name and a description of the offense.[10] Maintaining the court’s protocol, no judge signed the warrant until after police executed it.[11] A judge did, however, date and initial an attached complaint form.[12]

Harrison filed a motion to suppress evidence recovered during his arrest under the exclusionary rule, citing the defective arrest warrant.[13] The Logan County Common Pleas Court granted the request.[14] The Third District reversed, and Harrison appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio.[15]

The State offered several arguments in an attempt to avoid the exclusionary rule. It argued the officer who secured the blank arrest warrant was acting in good faith upon executing it.[16] It also attempted to distinguish the Williams rule—that unsigned search warrants are void ab initio—from arrest warrants.[17] In support, the State pointed out that the interests protected under the two warrant types are different, and that the liberty interest underlying arrest warrants “is diminished in many instances.”[18]

Harrison seized on the State’s differentiation of the two types of warrants, stating a person’s “liberty interest should be afforded greater protection, not less protection, than [their] privacy interest in their personal property.”[19]

III. Discussion

Harrison should win this case, and the evidence recovered during the execution of a blank arrest warrant should be suppressed.

First, the rationale underlying the Williams case extends to arrest warrants.[20] The Williams Court reasoned that the relevant statute, because it stated search warrants “shall command” officers to conduct a search, necessitated some action by the judiciary to be effective: “A command without a known commander cannot be a command.”[21] Ohio Criminal Rule 4 states arrest warrants “shall be issued” by a judicial official. Similarly to the Williams rationale, an issuance without an issuer cannot be an issuance.

The State contended that the complaint attached to the arrest warrant sufficed as it connoted a judicial finding of probable cause.[22] But the plain text of Ohio Criminal Rule 4 does not allow a complaint to stand in the place of a warrant.[23] The rule states “a copy of the complaint shall be attached to the warrant.”[24] This illustrates that the two forms are separate, and the complaint cannot alone substitute the authority granted by a warrant.[25]

Second, the State failed to show that the Williams rule should not apply to arrest warrants.[26] It argued that the liberty interest is diminished because warrantless seizures are allowed, such as by shopkeepers suspecting theft and police who have probable cause.[27] But the State elided that warrantless searches are also allowed in various contexts.[28] If the Williams rule can stand despite these search warrant exceptions, so too can an extension of that rule that holds arrest warrants must be signed.

Third, the State argued for a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule.[29] But the Williams Court language shows a good-faith exception cannot apply to a warrant that has been voided ab initio.[30] Williams cited favorably to a Third District decision, State v. Spaw, which held that “what otherwise purports to be a search warrant is not a search warrant when it lacks any signature at all . . . with such defect being readily apparent on the face of the instrument it cannot be said that the officers exercising the ‘warrant’ acted in good faith.”[31]

The Court should eventually reject the good-faith exception altogether, as multiple state courts have done.[32] One such court, considering an unconstitutional search and arrest, stated use of evidence under the good-faith exception would provide a “positive incentive … to others to engage in similar lawless acts.”[33] However, Supreme Court of Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor indicated her support for the good-faith argument during the Harrison oral argument, recounting the State argument that police did not cause the signature issue.[34] An expanded, and better, view would consider the effect of the exception on the integrity of the judicial system as a whole.[35]

Finally, the Court should safeguard the liberty interests at stake in Harrison’s case to the same degree that property rights are protected by the Williams rule.[36] Requiring a signature is a basic, commonsense method to ensure applications for arrest warrants have undergone the proper judicial scrutiny before they are executed. A signature is the final stamp of judicial approval.[37] Anything less should be deemed a decision-in-progress, with probable cause far from certain.

Holding that arrest warrants do not require the same degree of protection from abuse as search warrants would elevate property interests over liberty. It would mark another decision in a long line of cases that have diminished people’s liberty interests.[38] 

IV. Conclusion

As the Williams Court has already decided unsigned search warrants are void ab initio, the decision in this case should be simple. An unsigned arrest warrant should be void ab initio. The evidence recovered during Harrison’s arrest should be suppressed. The State failed to distinguish arrest warrants from search warrants, and as such the Williams rule should control. Holding against Harrison would mark yet another decision that erodes liberty.


[1] Oral Argument, State of Ohio v. Kandale L. Harrison, (2021) (No. 2020-1117) (pending decision), https://ohiochannel.org/video/supreme-court-of-ohio-case-no-2020-1117-state-v-harrison.

[2] Id. at 5:02 (Justice Patrick F. Fischer stating, “Counsel, the federal Criminal Rule 4 requires a signature. The Ohio criminal rule does not, correct?”).

[3] State v. Williams, 565 N.E.2d 563, 566 (1991) (absence of signature voids search warrant ab initio).

[4] Id. (evidence seized under a warrant that has been voided ab initio “must be suppressed”); see also Sara Leonhartsberger, Exclusive Exclusionary Rule: Does an Unsigned Warrant Qualify Under the Good-faith Exception?, University of Cincinnati Law Review Blog, Oct. 29, 2021, https://perma.cc/5LCN-BRKN (arguing that extending the good-faith exception to an unsigned arrest warrant could contribute to swallowing the exclusionary rule).

[5] Reply Brief of Appellant Kandale Harrison, at 1, State of Ohio v. Kandale L. Harrison, No. 2020-1117 (April 6, 2021) (“An individual’s liberty interest should be afforded greater protection, not less protection than the individual’s privacy interest in his personal property”).

[6] See e.g., Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 411 (1857) (stating two clauses of Constitution were “not intended to confer on [enslaved people and their descendants] the blessings of liberty,” and were instead meant to safeguard “the right of property of the master”); Ambler Realty Co. v. Vill. of Euclid, Ohio, 297 F. 307, 313 (N.D. Ohio 1924), rev’d, 272 U.S. 365, (1926) (“The blighting of property values and the congesting of population, whenever the colored or certain foreign races invade a residential section, are so well known as to be within the judicial cognizance.”); A.C. Thompson, Katrina’s Hidden Race War, The Nation, Jan. 5, 2009 edition, https://perma.cc/NB9R-7XGG (reporting police condoned racial violence perpetrated by white residents in Algiers Point, near New Orleans, in aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as Black survivors entered the Algiers community seeking an evacuation point. One white vigilante claimed: “The police said, ‘If they’re breaking in your property do what you gotta do and leave them [the bodies] on the side of the road’ ”); see generally Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 153 (1978) (Powell, J., concurring) (discussing inherent connection between privacy interest (which animates Fourth Amendment jurisprudence) and property: “[P]roperty rights reflect society’s explicit recognition of a person’s authority to act as he wishes in certain areas, and therefore should be considered in determining whether an individual’s expectations of privacy are reasonable”).

[7] Merit Brief of Plaintiff-Appellee State of Ohio, at 3, State of Ohio v. Kandale L. Harrison, No. 2020-1117 (March 17, 2021).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Merit Brief of Appellant Kandale Harrison, at 1, State of Ohio v. Kandale L. Harrison, No. 2020-1117 (Feb. 8, 2021).

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 7.

[13] Id. at 1.

[14] Id. at 2.

[15] Merit Brief of Plaintiff-Appellee State of Ohio, supra note 7, at 2.

[16] Id. at 6.

[17] Id. at 8.

[18] Id.

[19] Reply Brief of Appellant Kandale Harrison, supra note 7, at 1.

[20] 565 N.E.2d at 565 (citing Ohio law stating search warrants “shall command” officers to execute them).

[21] Id.

[22] Reply Brief of Appellant Kandale Harrison, supra note 7, at 17-18.

[23] Ohio Crim. R. 4(C)(1).

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at (A)(1) (“If it appears from the complaint, or from an affidavit or affidavits filed with the complaint, that there is probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed, and that the defendant has committed it, a warrant for the arrest of the defendant, or a summons in lieu of a warrant, shall be issued…”).

[26] The State failed to argue in the lower courts that a warrantless arrest justified Harrison’s arrest, and as such waived the issue. See Reply Brief of Appellant Kandale Harrison, supra note 7, at 3.

[27] Merit Brief of Plaintiff-Appellee State of Ohio, supra note 7, at 8.

[28] See e.g., Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968) (allowing warrantless searches, or frisks, of one’s person and worn clothing); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 376 (allowing warrantless inventory searches of vehicles); Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325, 337 (1990) (allowing warrantless sweep searches of homes during arrests).

[29] Merit Brief of Plaintiff-Appellee State of Ohio, supra note 7, at 6.

[30] Merit Brief of Appellant Kandale Harrison, supra note 10, at 13.

[31] Id. (citing State v. Spaw, 480 N.E.2d 1138, 1140-41 (3rd Dist. 1984).

[32] See e.g., Com. v. Johnson, 86 A.3d 182, 191 (Pa. 2014) (interpreting state constitution and rejecting good-faith exception to exclusionary rule).

[33] People v. Bigelow, 488 N.E.2d 451, 458 (N.Y. 1985).

[34] Oral Argument, State of Ohio v. Kandale L. Harrison, supra note 1, at 21:45. Justice O’Connor did not emphasize that the court’s protocol in eschewing judicial signatures on arrest warrants stemmed from a police request. Police requested court officials to alter warrant protocol in an effort to avoid public access to newly issued warrants. See State v. Harrison, 3rd Dist. Logan No. 8-19-48, 2020-Ohio-3920, at ¶ 20, appeal allowed.

[35] Kenworthey Bilz, Dirty Hands or Deterrence? An Experimental Examination of the Exclusionary Rule, Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 10-28, at 29 (2010) (finding empirical evidence that state actors feel guilt and a “literal sensation of dirtiness” when using evidence seized unlawfully, adding, “people value the exclusionary rule for its ability to maintain the integrity of the courts”).

[36] 565 N.E.2d at 566.

[37] My colleague, Sara Leonhartsberger, has previously pointed to U.S. Supreme Court precedent that sanctions the exclusionary rule upon a finding of systemic negligence. The protocol adopted by the Bellefontaine Municipal Court, to forego signing arrest warrants, could fit the definition of systemic negligence, Leonhartsberger argued. See Leonhartsberger, supra note 4, at Part III-B; see also Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 144 (2009).

[38] See endnote 6.