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Court News Ohio

Search of Computer Lacked Probable Cause, Evidence Cannot Be Used

Image of the words from the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment requires officers to describe what they believe will be found on a computer as specifically as possible to narrow the search to only the items to be seized.

Image of the words from the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment requires officers to describe what they believe will be found on a computer as specifically as possible to narrow the search to only the items to be seized.

The Ohio Supreme Court today suppressed evidence taken from the computer of a Twinsburg man because the detective’s statement requesting the search warrant lacked probable cause and the subsequent warrant did not specifically state the items to look for on the computer.

In the 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court adopted a test to apply when considering a challenge to a search warrant in a motion to suppress evidence.

The court, in an opinion written by Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, reversed the Ninth District Court of Appeals’ judgment and returned the case to the trial court for more proceedings after eliminating the wrongly obtained evidence.

Prosecutor’s Vehicles Vandalized
In April 2010, Nicholas Castagnola was charged with selling alcohol to minors by the Twinsburg law director and prosecutor, David Maistros. Two months later, Maistros found his vehicles egged and damaged.

An informant shared text messages from Castagnola with a police officer in which Castagnola gloated about damaging Maistros’ vehicles. In a secretly recorded conversation, Castagnola also told the source that he and another man had egged the automobiles, and he mentioned he had looked up the prosecutor’s address in court records.

Police Seek Warrant to Search House, Computer
A police detective filed an affidavit with the local court for a search warrant of Castagnola’s home. The document stated that items found would be taken as evidence of criminal charges for retaliation, criminal trespassing, criminal damaging, and possession of criminal tools. The affidavit quoted the text messages and summarized the recorded conversation, but did not include the recording itself or a transcript of the exchange. A judge issued the search warrant, and several items, including two computers, were seized from Castagnola’s house.

When checking for images associated with court web sites, the forensic analyst in the case saw images she thought might be child pornography, and she requested another warrant.

Defendant Found Guilty
In December 2010, Castagnola asked the trial court to suppress the evidence taken from the computer. The court overruled the motion. Castagnola was found guilty of retaliation, criminal damaging, vandalism, criminal trespassing, and possession of criminal tools. He was also found guilty of 10 counts of pandering sexually oriented material involving a minor. The court sentenced him in October 2011 to a 30-month prison term, and he was classified as a tier II sex offender.

Castagnola appealed to the Ninth District, contesting the legality of the detective’s affidavit and the search warrant. The appeals court upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Test to Analyze Warrant’s Validity
Based on the recording, the police detective concluded that Castagnola had found information about Maistro online and indicated that conclusion in his affidavit requesting the search warrant. Justice Kennedy noted that probable cause for a warrant is determined based on the “four corners” of the affidavit when no oral testimony is presented.

To review the validity of the warrant, Justice Kennedy adopted a test presented in People v. Caffott (1980), a decision from a California appeals court. The case examined when police interpretation of facts crosses the line into usurping a magistrate’s responsibility when issuing warrants.

The test evaluates whether a hidden inference is relevant to the magistrate’s inquiry in determining whether to approve a warrant. The test also looks at whether the leap from the facts to the affidavit’s conclusions is complex enough that the magistrate should have had the opportunity to review the inference’s validity.

“If the inference is significant, then the trial court should examine the affiant’s animus,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “If the affiant acted intentionally or with conscious indifference, then the warrant should be invalidated and the evidence suppressed. … However, if the affiant acted negligently, then the misstatement should be removed, the omitted underlying facts added, and the affidavit reassessed.”

Probable Cause Not Established
Justice Kennedy explained that while the detective thought Castagnola checked online for information about the prosecutor, Castagnola never said anything in the recording about doing an online search, and the affidavit’s “online” references were relevant to the magistrate’s decision. In addition, the detective’s inference from the recording was complex and should have been disclosed to the magistrate, she noted. She concluded that the undisclosed inference usurped the magistrate’s authority.

She reasoned, however, that the detective did not undermine the magistrate’s role intentionally or with indifference. Following Caffott, Justice Kennedy reassessed the probable cause basis for the search of Castagnola’s computer and determined that no evidence from the texts or the recording indicated that he used a computer at home to further his alleged crimes. How Castagnola searched for Maistros’ address was unclear, she noted.

While the dissent criticizes the Caffott test because it is from an out-of-state appeals court, Justice Kennedy wrote that the Supreme Court regularly turns to other states when considering new legal issues and has adopted on-point and persuasive reasoning from those cases.

Warrants Must Be Specific, Not Sweeping
The court then turned to whether the search warrant described in detail what police were to search for on Castagnola’s computer. Justice Kennedy noted that the warrant allowed the search of records and documents stored on computers without any limitations.

The Fourth Amendment requires a warrant to “particularly describ[e] the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Based on that mandate, Justice Kennedy concluded that details about the records or documents sought from the computer should have been included in the warrant “to guide and control the searcher and to sufficiently narrow the category of records or documents subject to seizure.”

“We agree that the Fourth Amendment does not require a search warrant to specify restrictive search protocols, but we also recognize that the Fourth Amendment does prohibit a ‘sweeping comprehensive search of a computer’s hard drive,’” she explained. “The logical balance of these principles leads to the conclusion that officers must describe what they believe will be found on a computer with as much specificity as possible under the circumstances. This will enable the searcher to narrow his or her search to only the items to be seized.”

Good Faith Exception Does Not Apply
While acknowledging that one instance of police negligence does not require the related evidence to be excluded, Justice Kennedy noted “the negligent inclusion of the undisclosed inference is just the tip of the iceberg here.”

“The affidavit was so lacking in indicia of probable cause and the warrant was so facially deficient in failing to particularize the items to be searched for on Castagnola’s computer that the detective could not have relied on it in objective good faith,” she wrote.

She noted the difficulty of this case given Castagnola’s “despicably malicious” actions and the “horrifically objectionable” photos found on his computer.

However, “[a] search cannot depend on mere suspicion,” she reasoned. “Where a privacy intrusion is based on blatant conjecture that evidence exists on a computer in a residence because of a text-message admission of vandalism, the societal benefits of suppressing the evidence outweigh the societal risks of harm.” 

The case returns to the trial court to proceed without the evidence obtained from the invalid search.

The majority opinion was joined by Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, and William M. O’Neill.  Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Judith L. French.

In Dissent
Justice Lanzinger rejected the majority opinion, stating  “[w]ithout fully discussing our standard of reviewing the totality of the circumstances, the majority adopts the reasoning of a 35-year-old, out-of-state, intermediate court to change the law of Ohio.” She emphasized her view that the proper standard for determining whether probable cause exists for a search warrant depends on an examination of the “totality of the circumstances,” as reiterated by the court this year in State v. Jones.

To prove a Fourth Amendment violation, a defendant must show that a false statement was made intentionally or with reckless disregard for the truth, she explained. While the word “online” was not said in the recording, Justice Lanzinger noted that the detective’s affidavit did not state that it was quoting Castagnola and that the detective said he honestly believed Castagnola had mentioned searching online. There was no intentional deception or reckless disregard, she concluded.

“Under the majority’s approach, a negligent misstatement within an affidavit causes the entire affidavit to be subject to reassessment without any deference to the issuing magistrate,” Justice Lanzinger wrote. In her opinion, the Caffott test is not consistent with case law and does not follow the U.S. Supreme Court holding that facially-valid search warrants should not be invalidated unless a false statement was made intentionally or with reckless disregard for the truth.

She reasoned that the magistrate had a “substantial basis” for issuing the warrant based on the listed offenses, the quoted text messages, and the summary of the recorded conversation.

“For a search warrant to issue there needs to be only a fair probability that evidence will be found in a particular place,” she wrote. “Given today’s ubiquitous use of technology to obtain information, it is more than likely that Castagnola found the information online.”

Justice Lanzinger also “strenuously dissent[ed]” from the majority’s determination that the warrant was not executed in good faith by the officers.

In addition, she would not have addressed Castagnola’s claims related to the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. She does not agree that the particularity issue was implicit in Castagnola’s probable cause arguments, so she would have concluded that Castagnola failed to raise the issue in the lower courts.

2013-0781. State v. Castagnola, Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-1565.

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