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Supreme Court casts doubt on search-warrant forms

Scott Lauck//February 26, 2018//

Supreme Court casts doubt on search-warrant forms

Scott Lauck//February 26, 2018//

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A recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling questions the use of a standardized search-warrant form produced by an arm of the court itself.

In a 5-2 ruling on Feb. 13, a majority of the court suppressed the evidence against a couple accused of burglarizing a woman’s apartment. The CR160 search-warrant form used by the Kansas City Police Department included a series of checkboxes addressing general categories of property that police could indicate they were seeking in their search.

Arguments in lower courts had focused on a particularly problematic part of the warrant. A Kansas City detective had checked the category box for a “deceased human fetus or corpse, or part thereof,” despite having no reason to believe he would find a dead body.

The Supreme Court, however, said the warrant’s “corpse provision” was only part of the problem. The form includes several general checkbox categories, such as “property, article, material or substance that constitutes evidence of the commission of a crime;” “property that has been stolen or acquired in any manner declared an offense;” and “property for which possession is an offense under the laws of this state.” The detective checked most of the boxes on the form.

The warrant went on to specifically list the items the police thought they would find — and subsequently did find — during the search of the couple’s house. But the court read the checkbox categories as if they stood alone. Judge Patricia Breckenridge, writing for the majority, said those categories “effectively gave officers unfettered discretion to search the entire residence and seize any property they believed constituted evidence of the commission of any crime.”

The Missouri Supreme Court. File Photo.
The Missouri Supreme Court. File Photo.

In a dissent, Chief Justice Zel M. Fischer, joined by Judge Paul C. Wilson, said the general categories that had been checked off were fleshed out by the specific items listed in the warrant, and that the invalid portions of the warrant could be set aside. Invalidating the checked categories for lack of particularity, Fischer wrote, “would be to completely eliminate form warrants in general.”

The ruling doesn’t necessarily invalidate the form itself or all searches performed under a warrant that used it. But Kansas City attorney Clayton Gillette, who represented the accused couple on appeal, predicted a raft of suppression hearings and post-conviction motions in the wake of what he said was a surprisingly sweeping ruling.

“It definitely went beyond the scope of what I thought the case would be decided on,” Gillette said.

According to the opinion, Phillip Douglass and Jennifer M. Gaulter had drinks with a woman at a Kansas City-area hotel in 2013. The woman left because she felt she was being pressured into sex, but she left her purse.

Jackson County authorities alleged that Douglass and Gaulter used the woman’s keys the next day to rob her home. The search warrant listed a variety of stolen items police expected to find at Douglass and Gaulter’s home in Blue Springs, ranging from jewelry and sunglasses to identification documents. But a Jackson County judge suppressed the evidence after the detective testified that he intentionally checked the box beside the “corpse provision” even though he didn’t expect to find a body, so that a “piggyback warrant” wouldn’t be needed if human remains happened to be found.

In 2016, the case caused the full Missouri Court of Appeals Western District to split, 6-5. The majority had refused to suppress the evidence, saying the trial judge should have just severed the false part of the warrant. The dissenters said such an approach undermined the protections of the Fourth Amendment and the integrity of the judicial system.

The Missouri Attorney General’s office, which defended the validity of the warrant on appeal, declined to comment on the ruling.

Both the majority and the dissent noted that the judge who approved the warrant in 2013 should have stricken the corpse category. It was an awkward notation, as the issuing judge is their newest colleague — Judge W. Brent Powell, a former Jackson County circuit judge who was appointed to the Supreme Court last year. Powell did not participate in the Supreme Court’s ruling.

It’s not clear how many other circuits use the CR160 search warrant form, which is published by the Office of State Courts Administrator. In an email, Beth Riggert, communications counsel for the Supreme Court and a spokeswoman for the court system, said the form was created “more than a dozen years ago” by a Supreme Court committee that reviews records.

“The committee is aware of the Court’s recent decision,” she wrote.

John Humphrey, who represented Douglass and Gaulter in the trial court and served as a Jackson County assistant prosecutor from 1988 to 1994, said such forms weren’t used in his day. His clients’ case, he said, was an “ideal catalyst” to challenge the breadth of the form because so many of the boxes had been checked.

“Abolish the damn thing,” Humphrey said. “Make them type the stuff out. How hard could it be?”

The case is State v. Phillip Douglass and Jennifer M. Gaulter, SC95719.

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