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Connecticut Supreme Court Announces ‘John Doe’ Warrant Based on Suspect’s General Description and Partial DNA Profiles, Which May or May Not Include Suspect’s DNA, Fails to Satisfy ‘Particularity Requirement’ of Fourth Amendment

by Douglas Ankney

In an issue of first impression with potentially nationwide implications, the Supreme Court of Connecticut held that a “John Doe” warrant that was based on the general description of a suspect and on several mixed partial DNA profiles, which may or may not have included the suspect’s DNA and did not state the probability that a random person would match any of those profiles, fails to satisfy the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In October 2012, a woman was robbed and shot in a Norwalk parking garage. Officers from the Norwalk Police Department (“NPD”) recovered a sweater, sweatshirt, cellphone case, and .22 caliber revolver (silver in color) from behind the Best Buy that video footage showed the robber had fled toward. The woman identified the cellphone case as being the one the robber took from her. The clothing matched the description of that worn by the robber who was described as a “[B]lack male between 18 and 30 years old with a medium build.”

The recovered items were sent to the State Forensics Laboratory (“SFL”). In its report, the SFL stated the items had mixtures of DNA from multiple contributors — excluding the victim’s. The report failed to include any comparative statistics that any random person would match any of the profiles.

In April 2017, six months before the statute of limitations (“SOL”) expired, the NPD applied for a John Doe arrest warrant. The sworn affidavit alleged there was probable cause for the SOL to be tolled pending the arrest of an unknown male identifiable through the general description of the suspect and the DNA profiles obtained from the recovered evidence. The warrant was issued by the trial court on the basis of the information in the affidavit.

In April 2018, six months after the expiration of the SOL, the NPD received information identifying Terrance Police as the suspected robber. A warrant was issued authorizing the NPD to obtain Police’s DNA via buccal swabbing. Two weeks later, the SFL compared Police’s sample DNA profile with the DNA profiles generated by retesting of the recovered evidence. The SFL then released a Supplementary Report, stating it was 100 billion times more likely that Police contributed to the DNA mixtures found on the sweater, sweatshirt, and handgun compared to the mixtures from random sources, and it was 1.2 billion times more likely Police had contributed to the DNA mixture found on the cellphone case compared to the mixture coming from random sources.

Police was arrested on the John Doe warrant, and he moved to dismiss, arguing, inter alia, the State failed to bring charges within the applicable SOL. In response, the State argued that a John Doe warrant tolls the SOL when “it meets the particularity requirement of the fourth amendment to the United States constitution as well as the reasonable certainty requirement under Connecticut law.”

The trial court, relying on the SFL’s Supplementary Report, denied Police’s motion, reasoning the John Doe arrest warrant “identified the defendant with nearly irrefutable precision despite the initial use of the John Doe pseudonym” such that “there was essentially no possibility that the DNA profile of the perpetrator originated from another human being.”

Police entered a plea of nolo contendere, conditioned on his right to appeal, to one count each of assault in violation of General Statutes § 53a-59(a)(1) and robbery in violation of § 53a-134(a)(2). On appeal, Police argued, inter alia, that the trial court improperly denied his motion to dismiss the information because the John Doe arrest warrant failed to satisfy the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

Because Police’s argument was unpreserved, the Connecticut Supreme Court reviewed under State v. Golding, 567 A.2d 823 (Conn. 1989), which requires Police to show: (1) the record was adequate to review the claimed error; (2) the claim was of a constitutional magnitude and alleged violation of a fundamental right; (3) the violation existed and deprived him of a fair trial; and (4) if subject to harmless error analysis, the State failed to demonstrate harmlessness beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Court observed that when “determining the validity of an arrest warrant, the only information that a reviewing court properly may consider is that which was presented to the judicial authority that issued the warrant, which must appear either on the face of the warrant or be incorporated by reference therein.” Aguilar v. Texas, 378 U.S. 108 (1964). The Court concluded the record was adequate for review, satisfying Golding’s prong (1). Likewise, prong (2) was satisfied because the claim was of constitutional magnitude, the Court determined. See State v. Browne, 970 A.2d 81 (Conn. 2009).

Regarding Golding’s prong (3), § 54-193(b) provides in relevant part: “[n]o person may be prosecuted for any offense … for which the punishment is or may be imprisonment in the excess of one year, except within five years next after the offense has been committed.”

In State v. Crawford, 521 A.2d 1034 (Conn. 1987), the court held that the issuance of an arrest warrant within the limitation period of § 54-193(b) commences prosecution for purposes of satisfying the SOL if the warrant was executed without delay. In the instant case, it was undisputed the warrant was issued within the five-year SOL. But the determinative question is whether the John Doe warrant at issue satisfies the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement, the Court explained.

The particularity requirement provides 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.” U.S. Const., amend. IV. The manifest purpose of the requirement is to prevent general searches, limiting the power to search and seize to specific areas and things or people — with nothing left to the discretion of the officer(s) executing the warrant. Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79 (1987).

Courts “universally have held that ‘an arrest warrant that correctly names the person to be arrested is … constitutionally sufficient and need not contain any additional identifying information.” Rivera v. Los Angeles, 745 F.3d 384 (9th Cir. 2014). But an arrest warrant with a named individual different from the name of the person arrested is constitutionally invalid where the person arrested has never gone by the name written in the warrant. West v. Cabell, 153 U.S. 78 (1894) (“Arrest of Vandy M. West invalid where arrest was predicated on warrant naming James West”). “Generally, arrest warrants either describing the suspect only as ‘John Doe’ or inaccurately naming an individual without some other identifying description have been ruled insufficient under the naming requirement of the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Doe, 703 F.2d 745 (3d. Cir. 1983). Further, a John Doe warrant describing the suspect as a “white male adult [thirty to thirty-five years old, five feet ten inches, 175 pounds] dark hair, medium build” lacked adequate specificity. People v. Montoya, 255 Cal. App. 2d. 137 (1967).

While an issue of first impression in Connecticut, the Court determined that courts in no fewer than ten other states have been presented with the issue of a John Doe warrant that described the suspect by reference to his unique DNA profile and have held that it satisfies the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. (See opinion for supporting citations from Arizona, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin.)

But in the instant case, the affidavit supporting the warrant did not include the complete unique DNA profile of the defendant. Nor did the affidavit or accompanying SFL report state any probability statistics comparing the likelihood of a particular person contributing to the mixture of DNA profiles versus any random person contributing to the mixture of DNA. Additionally, the Court stated that the suspect’s general physical description in the affidavit would apply to any one of the thousands of Black men in Connecticut. Thus, the warrant was issued based on information that failed to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement, the Court concluded.

The Court explained that the fact that the trial court relied on information from the SFL’s Supplementary Report when denying the motion to dismiss does not change the Court’s conclusion that the John Doe warrant is constitutionally infirm. The Court stated that the lower court was required to determine the validity of the warrant based exclusively on the information that was before it at the time of issuance of the warrant. Aguilar.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment and remanded with direction to render judgment dismissing the information because the SOL had expired. See: State v. Terrance Police, 273 A.3d 211 (Conn. 2022). 

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