Mistaken Warrant Belief Doesn’t Trigger Suppression

United States v. Zahn, 2023 WL 2605268 (8th Cir. 2023)

A judge issued an arrest warrant for Elmer Zahn on July 18, 2019, and the court sent the warrant to the sheriff’s office for service. After Zahn pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor on July 29, 2019, the remaining charges were dismissed. Though the sheriff’s office learned the warrant was withdrawn, it inexplicably remained in the active file.

A deputy who had seen the warrant for Zahn drove past Zahn’s apartment on Nov. 7, 2019, and saw someone he believed to be Zahn. The deputy pulled up Zahn’s information on his in-car computer, where he viewed a photo and notice of an active warrant. The deputy approached Zahn, and after a brief struggle, took him to the ground. A search revealed drug paraphernalia and five plastic baggies of methamphetamine.

After booking Zahn into jail, the deputy obtained a warrant authorizing a search of Zahn’s apartment. Execution of the search warrant revealed more methamphetamine and evidence of drug distribution. Later, Zahn was released from jail and an additional arrest warrant was issued. Deputies responding to a disturbance at a local hotel saw Zahn and three others in a room. Knowing Zahn and two of the other occupants had active arrest warrants, a deputy entered the room, handcuffed Zahn and noticed drug paraphernalia lying on the floor. During the subsequent warrant-authorized search of the room, officers discovered methamphetamine, heroin and other evidence of drug distribution.

The administrative negligence “was not so objectively culpable as to require exclusion” of the evidence seized in the two arrests and warrant searches.

Zahn asked the court to suppress the evidence from both arrests and warrant searches, arguing they were the fruit of an illegal arrest based on an admittedly mistaken belief that Zahn was the subject of an arrest warrant. The trial court refused; Zahn appealed.

The appellate court upheld admission of the evidence. In Herring v. United States (555 U.S. 135 (2009)), the Supreme Court held that the exclusionary rule does not apply when “an officer reasonably believes there is an outstanding arrest warrant, but that belief turns out to be wrong because of a negligent bookkeeping error by another police employee.” The court concluded it was a single act of negligence that caused Zahn’s recalled warrant to remain in the file and not reckless disregard of constitutional requirements. The administrative negligence “was not so objectively culpable as to require exclusion” of the evidence seized in the two arrests and warrant searches. Thus, suppression was not required.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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