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Missouri High Court Holds Checkbox-Style Search Warrant Constitutes an Unconstitutional General Warrant

by Dale Chappell

A search warrant with checkboxes generally describing the purpose of the warrant lacked particularity and probable cause and was an unconstitutional “general search warrant,” the Supreme Court of Missouri held. The Court affirmed the defendants’ motions to suppress all evidence seized in connection with the defective warrant.

After Jennifer Gauter and Phillip Douglass were accused of burglarizing a home, the Kansas City police applied for a search warrant to search their residence to check for the stolen items. The search warrant prepared by a detective had checkboxes that generally described the items to be seized and the reason for the warrant, including a checkbox authorizing officers to seize a “deceased human fetus or corpse, or part thereof.” The warrant also listed in detail some of the items that were allegedly stolen from the home. All of the boxes were checked, including the corpse box, and the judge approved the warrant.

Gauter and Douglass were charged with burglary in the second degree and felony stealing, after police recovered several of the items listed in the warrant, but not the corpse. The pair filed pretrial motions to suppress the evidence, arguing that the warrant was invalid because the police did not have probable cause to search for a corpse. At the suppression hearing, the detective admitted that he checked the corpse box, even though he did not expect to find a corpse because he said it would save time in the event one were found.

The circuit court granted Gauter and Douglass’ motion to suppress, finding that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, which forgives law enforcement officers for errors in searches if they believed “in good faith” that they were abiding by the rules, did not apply because the detective knowingly gave a false statement to the court by checking the corpse box when he had no reason to believe that a corpse would be discovered at their residence. This “in essence” created a “general search warrant,” the court held and found that the exclusionary rule was required here to deter future intentional police misconduct. As such, the court tossed all the evidence seized. After the court of appeals affirmed the suppression, the Missouri Supreme Court granted the State’s request to appeal.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Article I, section 15, of the Missouri Constitution provides the same protection, and Missouri Revised Statutes, § 542.276.10, prohibits a search warrant “issued without probable cause” or that “does not describe the person, place, or thing to be searched.”

Before the Supreme Court, the State argued that the search warrant could be salvaged by excising the invalid portion referring to the corpse by applying the “severance doctrine,” which allows certain invalid portions of a search warrant to be severed from the valid portions, as long as the invalid portions can be meaningfully severed from the valid portions and not created a “general search warrant.” United States v. Riggs, 690 F.2d 298 (1st Cir. 1982). A general search warrant is unconstitutional because it lacks the particularity required by the Fourth Amendment and allows a “rummaging” through a person’s property in hopes of finding evidence. Severance is appropriate only where the valid portions are sufficiently particular and make up the greater part of the warrant—in quality, not quantity.

To determine whether the severance doctrine was appropriate in this case, the Court first divided the warrant into its major categories of items to be seized, including the generic checkboxes. The Court then evaluated the constitutional validity of each category, distinguished the valid and invalid categories, and finally determined whether the invalid portions made up the greater part of the warrant in quality, not quantity.

Finding that the five checkboxes, including the one for a corpse were not particular and lacked probable cause, the Court ruled them invalid. Next, the seven categories describing the property expected to be seized, including Coach, Prada, and Louis Vuitton bags, were valid. Finally, the last category, “any property readily and easily identifiable as stolen,” was a “broad, catch-all” provision like those found in general search warrants.

While the valid portions were numerically greater than the invalid portions, the invalid portions were “so broad and invasive that they contaminated the whole warrant,” the Court concluded.

The Court also rejected the State’s argument that because several of the listed items in the valid portions were seized the invalid portions were harmless. “The severance doctrine focuses exclusively on the search warrant itself, not what items were actually seized,” the Court said.

The Court concluded that the warrant was a “general search warrant” in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Missouri law and that “the only remedy for a general warrant is to suppress all evidence obtained thereby.” The Court explained that the “severance doctrine cannot be used to save a general warrant.”

Accordingly, the Supreme Court ruled that the circuit court properly suppressed all evidence seized and affirmed the circuit court’s order. See: State v. Douglass, 544 S.W.3d 182 (Mo. 2018). 

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