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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Deputy Court Clerk Who is also Deputy Sheriff is not ‘Neutral Magistrate’ Who May Determine Whether There is Probable Cause to Issue Arrest Warrant

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that a person who serves as both a deputy sheriff and a deputy clerk of a municipal court in the same county is not a “neutral and detached magistrate” for purposes of determining whether probable cause exists to issue an arrest warrant.

Applying that analysis to a Summit County case, the court held 7-0 that an arrest warrant issued by a deputy clerk of the Barberton Municipal Court who was also employed as a sergeant with the Summit County  Sheriff’s Department was invalid. 

Because the improper warrant in this case was not issued until after the defendant had confessed to the crime of which she was accused and had been placed under arrest, and police did not obtain any evidence against her pursuant to the defective warrant, the court declined to rule on whether evidence obtained by means of a warrant issued by a deputy clerk who also serves as a law enforcement officer must be excluded from evidence under the exclusionary rule.

The case arose in 2009 when three detectives from the Summit County Sheriff’s Department went to the home of Jillian Hobbs to question her about a recent burglary in her neighborhood in which she had been implicated. After conferring privately with her boyfriend, Hobbs confessed that she had committed the burglary. The detectives placed Hobbs under arrest, and one of them drew up a complaint charging her with burglary, an arrest warrant based on the complaint, and an affidavit swearing to the facts in the complaint. 

The detective submitted the paperwork to the deputy clerk of the Barberton Municipal Court. The court is located within the jurisdiction of the Summit County Sheriff’s Department, and the deputy clerk to whom the paperwork was submitted was also employed as a sergeant by the Summit County Sheriff’s Department. After reviewing the arresting detective’s documentation, the deputy clerk had the arresting officer swear an oath on the affidavit. The deputy clerk then determined that probable cause existed for appellant’s arrest and signed the warrant. The complaint was filed with the Barberton Municipal Court the next morning. Thereafter, a grand jury indicted Hobbs on a burglary charge. 

In the trial court, Hobbs filed a motion to suppress the evidence of her arrest and any statements or identifications stemming from the incident and to dismiss the charges against her.  She argued that the warrant for her arrest was invalid because it was based on a finding of probable cause made by a magistrate who was not neutral and detached due to his dual role as a law-enforcement officer and clerk of the court. Although the trial court agreed that the warrant was not properly issued, it denied the motion to suppress, concluding that no evidence had come to light as a result of the warrant, and therefore there was nothing to suppress. Hobbs pleaded no contest and was sentenced accordingly. 

Hobbs appealed, contending that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress her confession and dismiss the burglary charge. The Ninth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, but certified that its ruling was in conflict with two decisions of the Eight District.  The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to resolve the conflict between appellate districts, and also accepted Hobbs’ discretionary appeal.

In today’s decision, Justice Robert R. Cupp wrote that when a magistrate who issues an arrest warrant also serves in the dual capacity of a deputy sheriff and a deputy clerk, the “magistrate must be (1) neutral and detached and (2) capable of determining whether probable cause exists for the requested arrest.”  In consideration of the neutral and detached requirement, Justice Cupp wrote that: “(T)he Supreme Court of the United States (has) observed that to ensure proper separation of law enforcement from the judicial process of determining probable cause, ‘inferences [of probable cause must] be drawn by a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime.’ ... The need for separating the executive function of law enforcement from the judicial function of determining probable cause has previously been affirmed in Ohio. Over 25 years ago, an appellate court determined that a deputy clerk for a municipality was not a neutral and detached magistrate because she was also a dispatcher employed by the police department.”    

“The Ohio Attorney General has expressed similar concerns regarding the separation required between the executive function of law enforcement and the judicial function of determining probable cause.  For instance, the attorney general has declared that a clerk of a county or municipal court may not appoint deputy sheriffs of that same county as deputy clerks of the court. ... Similarly, a police officer serving a municipality may not be appointed to the position of deputy clerk for a municipal court located in that same municipality. ... Nor may a dispatcher for the county sheriff be appointed to the position of deputy clerk of a municipal court located in that same county.”

In this case, Justice Cupp wrote: “(T)he deputy clerk’s dual position as a sergeant in the sheriff’s department located in the same county served by the Barberton Municipal Court creates an inappropriate tension between the executive function of law enforcement and the judicial function of determining probable cause.  The deputy clerk’s dual-capacity position blurs the separation and threatens the independence of the executive and judicial functions.  Further, the dual-capacity position places the deputy clerk at risk of divided loyalties and conflicting duties, as cogently described in the opinions of the Ohio Attorney General. The result is that the deputy clerk lacks the requisite neutrality and detachment to make the probable-cause determination necessary for issuing a valid warrant pursuant to Crim.R. 4(A)(1).” 

“Accordingly, we hold that a person acting in a dual capacity as deputy sheriff for a county and deputy clerk for a municipal court located in that same county is not a neutral and detached magistrate for purposes of determining whether probable cause exists for issuing an arrest warrant. We answer the certified question in the negative, and we affirm the judgment of the court of appeals that the arrest warrant was invalid because the deputy clerk impermissibly acted in a dual capacity.”

While the court also initially agreed to consider the applicability of the exclusionary rule to the facts of this case, Justice Cupp observed that after reviewing the record, the justices found there was no actual dispute for the court to resolve. He wrote: “The exclusionary rule operates to exclude, or suppress, evidence that is derived from police conduct that violated constitutional protections. As the trial court observed, the appropriate remedy for a defective warrant issued subsequent to a warrantless arrest is the suppression of wrongly obtained evidence and not dismissal of the charges. ...  Moreover, as the trial court concluded, there was no evidence obtained as a result of the improperly issued arrest warrant. According to the arresting officer, the arrest was predicated primarily upon the pre-arrest confession, and no other evidence was obtained subsequent to the arrest.  The appellate court reached similar conclusions.”

“The evidence that underlies the charges in the indictment and supports the state’s case-in-chief came from sources independent of the improperly issued arrest warrant, i.e., appellant’s pre-arrest confession that she committed the burglary.  Thus, the invalid warrant led to no evidence subject to suppression. Accordingly, the issue of whether the exclusionary rule is an appropriate remedy for an invalidly issued arrest warrant is not properly before us. We dismiss the discretionary appeal as having been improvidently accepted.” 

Justice Cupp’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Yvette McGee Brown. Justice Terrence O’Donnell concurred in judgment and the court’s syllabus holding.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

2011-1504 and 2011-1593State v. Hobbs, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-3886.
Summit App. No. 25379, 2011-Ohio-3192.  Judgment affirmed.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, Lanzinger, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
O’Donnell, J., concurs in syllabus and judgment.

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

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