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No Probable Cause for a Search Warrant? Exclusionary Rule Applies

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

What do you get when you combine an investigator with more suspicions than facts and a judge who happily issues a warrant that lacks probable cause? A 30-page suppression opinion.

Tydel John, a teacher in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was under investigation for sexually assaulting several of the children at the school where he taught. Children told police that John maintained two, spiral-bound notebooks in which he made notes about his students, including inappropriate notes about past and present female students. According to witnesses, John carried the notebooks with him to and from school each day in his work bag.

Detective Sergeant Naomi Joseph of the Virgin Islands Police Department applied for a warrant to search John's home for child pornography, relying solely on an affidavit that established only probable cause to believe that she would find evidence that he had sexually assaulted several children.

In her affidavit, Joseph did not allege any direct evidence that John possessed child pornography, did not aver a connection between the two crimes, and did not claim either a good faith belief in such a connection or any basis for thinking that one had been established. In other words, Joseph lacked probable cause for a search warrant for child pornography.

Despite the deficiencies in Joseph's affidavit, a Virgin Islands Superior Court judge issued the warrant. While executing the warrant in John's home, investigators quickly located the spiral bound notebooks, and continued searching for evidence of child pornography. The search turned up incriminating journals detailing evidence germane to the charges of aggravated rape, unlawful sexual contact, child abuse, and child neglect, but no child pornography. John was charged with five counts of unlawful sexual contact.

At trial, the court granted John's motion to suppress the journals because there was not probable cause for a search warrant for child pornography. The court ruled that the search that occurred after police found the spiral notebooks was beyond the permissible scope of the warrant's execution.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's decision to suppress the evidence under the exclusionary rule, and found that the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule did not apply because Joseph's warrant was obtained on the basis of an affidavit that was "so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable."

The most egregious error in the affidavit? The catalogue of the affidavit's "indicia of probable cause" with respect to child pornography is completely empty. The court noted that even a cursory reading of Joseph's affidavit revealed that there was not a single assertion that John was in any way associated with child pornography.

Remember, kids: You need probable cause for a search warrant, not just a feeling that one sick tendency typically begets another. Probable cause may be an annoying formality in an investigation, but it keeps over-eager officers from plundering our belongings with reckless abandon.

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