10th District Court of Appeals Rejects Extension of Good-Faith Exception in 4th Amendment Case

In State v. Sears, the 10th District Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s order granting a motion to suppress. The Court found that an arresting officer’s mistake as to the identity of the suspect they arrested was not reasonable, and therefore evidence of a handgun they found on the defendant’s person should be suppressed.

Columbus police were dispatched to arrest a suspect in a car theft, who they also knew had a separate outstanding warrant. On their way to serve the warrant, officers briefly viewed a mugshot of the suspect. At the residence where they hoped to find the suspect, they found Sears, the defendant, who matched a general description of the suspect. Police approached him and immediately placed him in handcuffs. Body-worn camera footage showed that officers asked Sears’ name as they approached, and he told them. He also repeatedly told the officers they could check his driver’s license in his front pocket, but they did not do so. Police found a handgun on Sears’ person, and he was charged with having a weapon under disability.

Sears filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the arrest and search of his person were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The trial court granted the motion, and the State appealed.

The Court of Appeals recognized that when officers have probable cause to arrest a suspect, but mistakenly arrest an individual matching the suspect’s description, the arrest and subsequent search of the suspect is not unlawful, as long as the officer’s mistake of identity is reasonable. The trial court had found that the officers made an unreasonable mistake, because Sears identified himself immediately, police could have checked his driver’s license, but decided not to, and Sears matched only a very general description of the suspect. The Court of Appeals held that this decision was supported by competent credible evidence in the record, and therefore affirmed.

The State argued that the good-faith exception to the warrant requirement found in ­United States v. Leon should apply. Leon held that the exclusionary rule does not apply to an officer acting in reliance on a determination of probable cause made by a magistrate, even if the magistrate’s decision turns out to be unreliable or erroneous.

The Court of Appeals pointed out the important distinction, that in this case, the police officer was not relying on erroneous information from a magistrate, but on his own mistake of fact. The Court reasoned that the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to discourage police from violating the Fourth Amendment. Because the exclusionary rule would not deter an officer in the situation of Leon, where officer relied in good faith on a magistrate’s determination of probable cause, the purpose of the exclusionary rule is not relevant. By contrast, the need to discourage bad police conduct does apply to the police officer in this case, who could easily have acted to correct his mistake by verifying the suspect’s readily available driver’s license, but chose not to. For that reason, the Court of Appeals held that the good faith exception did not apply, and the trial court correctly granted the motion to suppress.