Appeals Court Says Address Mistakes On Warrants Are Mostly Harmless, Not Worth Getting Excited About

from the what-even-the-fuck dept

In a case involving a drug bust utilizing a warrant with erroneous information, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals had this to say [PDF] about the use of boilerplate language and typographical errors:

Challenges to warrants based on typographical errors or factual inaccuracies typically fall under this Circuit’s clerical error exception. We have consistently found that inadvertent drafting mistakes, for instance transposing a number in a street address or listing an incorrect nearby address, do not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. That is because those errors create little risk of a mistaken search or a general warrant granting police an unconstitutionally broad authority to conduct searches.

The order to search listed the wrong address. Here's why:

This description at the beginning of the warrant correctly directed officers to Abdalla’s precise New Hope Road address in DeKalb County. But the warrant’s final paragraph “commanded” officers “to search the . . . premises located at 245 Carey Road, Hartsville, Trousdale Tennessee.” (R. 20-1, Search Warrant, Page ID # 59.) Agent Gooch testified that the Carey Road address came from using a previous warrant as a template. Although Judge Patterson had jurisdiction over Abdalla’s residence in DeKalb County, he lacked jurisdiction in Trousdale County, which encompassed the Carey Road property listed on the warrant’s final page.

The court says this is harmless. Rather than suppress evidence in hopes that cops won't just copy-paste "sworn statements" before running them by a judge, the Appeals Court says this creates "little risk" of "mistaken searches." Perhaps in this case the risk was minimal. The rest of the warrant correctly described the residence and how to locate it. But to pretend careless warrant crafting rarely results in "mistaken searches" ignores how often it happens -- and how often this supposed low-risk "mistake" results in real harm.

"Little risk?" Here's what's actually happening in the Sixth Circuit, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

Oak Park, Michigan (November 2019): Police raid the wrong side of a duplex, breaking windows and the front door before realizing their mistake.

Flint, Michigan (October 2014): Troopers go to the wrong house to locate a fugitive, shoot family's dog in the face.

Detroit, Michigan (May 2017): After conducting a one-day(!) human trafficking investigation, a SWAT teams raids the wrong house, handcuffs everyone present (including two children) before discovering their mistake.

Detroit, Michigan (September 2017): DEA agents raid two(!) wrong addresses. The forty officers(!!) recover no drugs. Search warrants and property receipts left at the properties by the feds were blank, according to this report.

Detroit, MIchigan (April 2017): Police raid wrong house, kill homeowner's dog.

Nashville, Tennessee (August 2020): Three cops raid wrong house, traumatizing the resident and two young children. Officers predicated the search on housing information that hadn't been updated since November 2018.

Lebanon, Tennessee (January 2006) - Officers raid wrong house, kill 61-year-old man while his wife is handcuffed in another room.

Louisville, Kentucky (October 2018) - Officers (three of whom shot and killed Breonna Taylor during another botched raid) using outdated information raid a house looking for someone who had moved out four months earlier.

Bowling Green, Kentucky (July 2016) - Police raid the wrong house looking for a Black suspect. Officers handcuff and question the homeowner, who weighs 100 pounds less than the suspect they're looking for. The interrogated homeowner is also one foot taller than the suspect. He's also white.

Louisville, Kentucky (January 2020) - Officers enter the wrong house seeking a shooting suspect, handcuffing one of the residents.

Louisville, Kentucky (July 2020) - Cops raid a vacant house looking for a drug suspect who had already been arrested and was in jail. Officers break windows, destroy a door, and handcuff the man hired to paint the interior of the vacant residence.

Cleveland, Ohio (November 2018) - Wrong house raided during a shooting investigation. Cops cause over $8,000 of physical damage to the house and spend an hour interrogating all the residents -- some of whom are disabled -- before realizing their mistake.

Strongsville, Ohio (May 2010) - A man and his 14-year-old daughter are forced out of their house and made to lay face down on the lawn until officers realize they have the wrong address.

Cleveland, Tennessee (May 2018) - DEA and local cops raid wrong house in search of murder suspect. Flashbangs are deployed into the house despite the presence of young children -- something officers should have been able to discern from the number of toys around the front entry of the residence.

This is just a small sampling. And this is just from this circuit, which covers only four of the 50 states. This happens far too frequently for it to be shrugged off by an Appeals Court, even if the facts of the case might lead the court to conclude a mistake in an affidavit doesn't warrant the suppression of evidence.

The Fourth Amendment places the sanctity of the home above all else. And yet, officers continue to perform searches without performing the due diligence required to support a home invasion. Outdated info, unverified claims by informants, minimal investigative work… it all adds up to situations where rights are violated and residents are recklessly subjected to violence and deadly force.

How bad can it get? Here's a true horror story that shows just how little law enforcement agencies care about the people they're supposed to protect and serve:

Embarrassed cops on Thursday cited a "computer glitch" as the reason police targeted the home of an elderly, law-abiding couple more than 50 times in futile hunts for bad guys.

Apparently, the address of Walter and Rose Martin's Brooklyn home was used to test a department-wide computer system in 2002.

What followed was years of cops appearing at the Martins' door looking for murderers, robbers and rapists - as often as three times a week.

Every wrong visit to the house was a chance for officers to respond with deadly force to perceived threats. That these residents managed to survive 50+ incidents with cops looking for violent criminals is a miracle. "Mistaken searches" are not an acceptable outcome. Blanket statements like these issued by courts just give cops more reasons to cut corners before banging their way into someone's home in search of nonexistent criminals or criminal activity.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, 6th circuit, mistakes, police, warrants, wrong address


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  • identicon
    Bobvious, 3 Sep 2020 @ 3:03pm

    Harmless?

    I'm sure that if a judge's address "was used to test a department-wide computer system" there would be REAL reform REAL QUICK.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2020 @ 3:09pm

    It would never happen that they use due cause for one person, but mistaken address to enable a search on a property where they only have a hunch, and then go back a and get a corrected warrant. Such things would only happen in fiction wouldn't they?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 3 Sep 2020 @ 3:18pm

      Re:

      Hell, with 'good faith exceptions' odds are good they wouldn't even need the second warrant, as it's likely that the judge would buy the 'we thought we were at their right address and just so happened to find incriminating stuff' excuse and allow them to keep and use it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 3 Sep 2020 @ 3:10pm

    'Not a big problem to us that is.'

    It's easy to dismiss suffering when you know that someone else will always be on the receiving end, and as no-one is going to intentionally bust into a judge's house I imagine they feel quite safe in making such a ruling, because it's not like they are going to be on the receiving end of the results.

    Whether through corruption or cowardice the judges involved have shown that they have no business holding their position, one where they are supposed to give a damn about the rights and lives of the public they theoretically serve.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 5 Sep 2020 @ 12:48am

      Re: 'Not a big problem to us that is.'

      Exactly. The government gets important details wrong on official documents? No big deal. You or I make a small typo on a permit application or while paying a fine or filing an affidavit to a court? MAJOR CRIME! SEND MEN WITH GUNS!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2020 @ 3:13pm

    If they are harmless then they won't mind paying

    Every time they search the wrong location, they should not only pay for all damage to the property, but they should pay an additional $20k penalty for violating your rights. If it is considered harmless they will continue to shoot dogs, break property and treat everyone they encounter like a criminal. If they are forced to prove they are sorry, it will no longer be considered harmless.

    Sorry I shot your dog, wrong house. Should never be an applicable statement. If we harm a police dog, we face huge penalties. If they kill our pets, nothing is done. That is a double standard that needs to be corrected.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 4 Sep 2020 @ 2:14am

      Re: If they are harmless then they won't mind paying

      "Sorry I shot your dog, wrong house. Should never be an applicable statement."

      If only that was the extent of it. When nervous, armed police break into a house that brings with it the risk of "mistakes" being made. Like shooting the residents if said residents move, breathe, or look at the masked invaders in a funny way.

      You'd think a judge should know that any mistake which will point out the wrong address to send armed people trained to kill at the drop of a hat to is a mistake which has a high risk of causing unacceptable and irreversible harm.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 3 Sep 2020 @ 3:44pm

    Appeals Court

    Got a few address's??
    we can make up a few FAKE warrants(as has been done before), and send in a few with Different Labels on their shirts.
    Just to IMPRESS our opinion of this.

    On an asside.(yes spelled correctly)
    HOw many of these home were in RICH AREAS??
    HOw many rich home have Ever been used for meth?
    There has to be At least 1.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 3 Sep 2020 @ 3:56pm

    Just because it happened before, doesn't mean it's right now.

    If one of the judges addresses were 7201 Come Get Me Way and the suspected purp's was 7201 Come Get Me Place and the wrong address was selected for the raid, and they came full on, no knock, 4:00 am, swat team in full gear, fully engaged in the first Law of Policing (we must make it home to dinner, don't care about you) with shots fired for 'purp's' possession of a cell phone, then a different outcome might be found.

    That judges live in a different world makes them insulated to the real world. They should take the time to at the very least visualize the real world, before they decide things. Yes, precedent should have impact, as well as the law, but when precedent fails to recognize the real world, then they should have the gumption to step up and call bullshit when bullshit has been canonized.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2020 @ 7:07pm

    You list 14 incidents, over a 14 year period (discounting the 2002 computer snafu, and surely that couldn't happen again). Even assuming the real number of incidents is 10 times that, do you know how many sloppy, error-filled search warrants police fill out? Thousands a year! Tens of Thousands!

    So yeah, those 140 incidents, where people are detained, traumatized, killed, those are a drop in the bucket! Truly a "very little risk"! What's a few thousand casualties, compared to all the work those poor judges would have to make officers do to clean up that shit? And likely, none of those casualties are anyone you know, so what's the problem?

    Oh, so much /s. So very much /s.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Sep 2020 @ 7:19pm

      "Little" Horror Story?

      You so very much downplayed that particular horror story.

      1) The supposed computer test was in 2002.
      2) The couple complained in 2007, and some effort was made.
      3) The Daily News ran a story on the issue in 2010. Only then did the police commissioner order the department to find out what the F--- was going on.
      4) When they DID look for the problem, they found it in 24 hours.
      5) The 2002 computer test you mention ignores that the previous owner had been getting harassed regularly starting in 1994.

      So this shit had been going on for 15 years, off and on, before the department took it seriously. And it only took it seriously because they got bad press about it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ECA (profile), 3 Sep 2020 @ 11:48pm

        Re: "Little" Horror Story?

        A thing I tell People when they complain about the protestors.
        "How do you get people to Look and see what you want them to know?".
        the News dont care unless its Huge, explosive, and something Is happening. Not the protest, most times.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 5 Sep 2020 @ 11:50am

        "Took it seriously because they got bad press about it"

        It's a good incentive to jump right to the bad press part, as soon as we detect a problem.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Sep 2020 @ 5:27am

      Re:

      Did you happen to come across the following text as you counted the referenced incidents?

      "This is just a small sampling. And this is just from this circuit, which covers only four of the 50 states."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 4 Sep 2020 @ 12:39am

    The judges are totally in on the Fascist Police State thing.

    And that's why I continue to think the entire justice system needs to be abolished.

    If not for us, for the dogs.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Upstream (profile), 4 Sep 2020 @ 3:00am

      Re: The judges are totally in on the Fascist Police State thing.

      Yeah, it's hard to see how anyone could objectively look at all of the atrocities that Techdirt and others report on and not come to the conclusion that we live in an authoritarian police state and that all branches of government are active, willing, and even enthusiastic participants. The rare-as-hens-teeth exceptions only serve to highlight the rule.

      Of course, a big part of the problem is the statist mainstream media. They rarely report any of these atrocities, and when they do, they are usually buried so far down nobody ever reads them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 4 Sep 2020 @ 4:15am

        Re: Re: The judges are totally in on the Fascist Police State th

        "...that we live in an authoritarian police state and that all branches of government are active, willing, and even enthusiastic participants."

        More like a wannabe police state. The US is often in some weird intermediate between peelian-principle policing and a full-on East German STASI thuggery.

        "Of course, a big part of the problem is the statist mainstream media. They rarely report any of these atrocities, and when they do, they are usually buried so far down nobody ever reads them."

        One of the massive drawbacks of leaving news reporting to profit incentives. When real-life information is dull and repetitive news media isn't exactly incentivized to staying away from putting the clickbait on the front page.
        And, of course, you get shady "entertainment channels" like Fox and OANN poisoning the well by selling the fairy tales their viewers demand.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 4 Sep 2020 @ 3:57am

      Re: The judges are totally in on the Fascist Police State thing.

      "And that's why I continue to think the entire justice system needs to be abolished."

      To be replaced by...? And how?

      And that's a serious question. The sad fact is that in the US of today the judicial and the executive are what they are because much of the common citizenry shies away from the boring burden of politics, gladly voting for whatever clown amuses them the most for the moment.

      The idea that you are obligated, as part of society, to spend time making sure the society you're part of doesn't get screwed by the first grifter looking for an easy mark appears to be anathema to much of american culture in general. And I can't imagine why.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Upstream (profile), 4 Sep 2020 @ 5:55am

        Re: Re: The judges are totally in on the Fascist Police State th

        Juvenal had it pegged about 1500 years ago.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 4 Sep 2020 @ 12:35pm

        Replaced by what? And how?

        I'll freely admit I don't have all the answers. But we have a lot of answers, by which I mean there are elements throughout the legal system where we know changes we can make, but we don't because it benefits those who run the legal system to keep things the same. (Primarily law enforcement officers, prosecuting attorneys and judges).

        Our officials are subject to a lot of moral hazards in which they control their conduct and invariably choose a course which is detrimental to the public because it benefits them personally. The definition of corruption.

        As for how to fix it. Again, I don't personally know. I refer to the You're Lucky We Want Equality, Not Revenge speech that was featured on the Last Week Tonight. Ultimately, they're going to cross over to where the Republican party is already (who already wants to own the libs, id est behave with malice id est revenge) and we're going to have a big nasty war of blood and fire and lose a large chunk of population. Then we'll reset, rinse and repeat until we're too exhausted to fight to not go to the negotiation table. I'm guessing 25 million casualties should do it.

        Or, someone smarter than me with more power than I have can figure out a better way. A general strike would spare us a fuckton of blood and razed buildings, but general strikes have to be humongous and are very hard to organize.

        Occupy Wall Street tried to peacefully protest. They had a legitimate point. But they didn't know how to fix things. Eventually the cameras were turned off and the police came in with riot-control weapons and raided them like starving Virginians on Powhattan settlements. It seems the people don't have the right to express grievances unless they first formulate a solution our officials can abide by.

        I'm open to options. But the current justice system and the fascist police state it's propping up is going to keep on eating people. It'll eventually eat me. But I don't think the rest of the undesirables are going to be content to wait for the allies.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 7 Sep 2020 @ 10:19pm

          Re: Replaced by what? And how?

          It seems the people don't have the right to express grievances unless they first formulate a solution our officials can abide by.

          Can you imagine what would happen if this was how healthcare actually worked? You're not allowed a consultation unless you have an exact idea of what you're ill from and a recovery plan for how you plan to rehabilitate? Because, after all, you can only get better if you want to get better and not having a solution means you don't want to get better!

          Whining is annoying as fuck, but ignoring the whining doesn't make the problem go away, and neither does kneecapping every proposed solution either. But since the status quo is far easier to enforce, complainants are simply set aside as anarchists and troublemakers even when the system can't sustain itself. Motivational speakers don't get it because it interferes with their feel-good snake oil otherwise.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Uriel-238 (profile), 8 Sep 2020 @ 1:22am

            Treating the discontents as anarchists and troublemakers

            That is exactly how to brew rioters

            and, later, terrorists.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 9 Sep 2020 @ 1:26am

              Re: Treating the discontents as anarchists and troublemakers

              "That is exactly how to brew rioters..."

              Which is a terribly convenient recipe if you happen to be in dire need of a crisis for distracting or frightening the citizenry into accepting your continued governance, as recent events just keep showing.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 9 Sep 2020 @ 1:24am

            Re: Re: Replaced by what? And how?

            "Can you imagine what would happen if this was how healthcare actually worked? You're not allowed a consultation unless you have an exact idea of what you're ill from and a recovery plan for how you plan to rehabilitate? Because, after all, you can only get better if you want to get better and not having a solution means you don't want to get better!"

            ...welcome to how modern politicians oh so often weasel out of their obligations of being the guys employed by the public to fix issues. Arguably worse since if we compared politics to your example then in your example would go on with the doctor, upon finding that you're clueless as to your state of health, prescribing the highest-priced esoteric quackery that he thought you could unreasonably afford.

            "But since the status quo is far easier to enforce, complainants are simply set aside as anarchists and troublemakers even when the system can't sustain itself."

            Worse by far a motivation than just "easier to enforce" is that usually, not admitting the status quo works as advertised means someone in high position will end up embarrassed. What started as a mistake caused by ineptitude rapidly turns into actively malicious coverup of that mistake. I'm sure there's an apt corollary to Hitchen's Razor there somewhere...

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 4 Sep 2020 @ 5:48am

    Well, sure, the dead tend not to get excited about stuff.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dr evil, 4 Sep 2020 @ 9:08am

    its all harmless, except for when its not

    if the errors are harmless, then the extra expense is acceptable and accepted and should have payouts. full stop.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Sep 2020 @ 9:42am

    Bad cases make bad precedent

    In this case, the police wrote the wrong address on one page of the warrant, but raided the house they intended to raid, and (presumably) had presented probable cause to believe that the intended target was a valid one. If the plaintiff had been the owner of an innocent property that never should have been raided, the court might have been more sympathetic.

    The courts need access to sanctions other than suppression. Currently, courts award "good faith" or similar exceptions because their choice is to grant no relief (allowing the police to benefit from whatever mistake is at issue) or they grant suppression (nominally punishing the police, and nominally benefiting the plaintiff by mitigating or eliminating criminal charges). In practice, this is insufficient on all sides:

    • The cops may not care enough about losing the bust for suppression to be a serious punishment, particularly given the considerable inconvenience (destruction of property, death of animals, pre-conviction detention) they already inflicted on the plaintiff, some of which cannot be made right, and all of which is almost never made right.
    • The plaintiff may have been innocent, or been able to beat the charges in other ways, so suppressing the evidence may offer the plaintiff little or no benefit.
    • Even if the plaintiff is guilty and had no other way of beating the charges, the incidental damage done to the plaintiff (destruction of property, etc. above) may be of greater value to the plaintiff than the suppression of evidence, particularly if the state is able to win one or more convictions even with the disputed evidence suppressed. (For example, if the state also brought incriminating witnesses to the trial, so suppressing the evidence only beats some of the charges, but not all of them.)

    If courts had access to issue sanctions that the police actually cared about, the police might be more motivated to be careful. Similarly, the courts might be more willing to use sanctions that do not have the side effect of "letting the guilty go free." I get the sense that in at least some cases, courts err on the side of non-suppression because suppression would free the guilty, and the judge doesn't want that to happen.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Upstream (profile), 4 Sep 2020 @ 10:58am

      Re: Bad cases make bad precedent

      Similarly, bad incentives yield bad results, and all the corollaries of this, such as:

      Poor incentives => Poor results
      Warped incentives => Warped results
      Good incentives for bad behavior => Much bad behavior
      No disincentives for bad behavior => Much bad behavior

      and so on. . . .

      It turns out that Pavlov really was onto something.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 9 Sep 2020 @ 1:29am

        Re: Re: Bad cases make bad precedent

        "It turns out that Pavlov really was onto something."

        So the conclusion is that we need people in law enforcement to be something more than trained dogs?
        We shouldn't really need science to come up with that advice...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    TRX, 4 Sep 2020 @ 10:41am

    I've been on the receiving end of one of those; they broke my front door and kicked the back door frame loose from the wall. The door bars kept them from getting in.

    Lots of threatening and trash talk from them. I told them I wanted to see the warrant. They said they didn't have to show me the warrant. I told them the first one who made it in would get a face full of buckshot.

    After about a 20 minute standoff, a patrol car arrived, a cop jumped out with a piece of paper, and handed it to the Biggest Mouth who was grandstanding, who passed it through the broken door to me. It was a warrant... for a house on the other side of the street.

    They packed their gear and left, still with threats. I went down and made a complaint, and was told not to make a fuss or bad things would happen. At the time, working 12 on-12 off, I chose to let it drop.

    I have much stouter doors now. And video. And audio. And off-site security streaming. And if they try it again, they'll be on YouTube before they make it back to the station.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 4 Sep 2020 @ 11:59am

      Re:

      Glad to hear you made it through intact, though I'm honestly surprised that you survived that, as after not only refusing to be properly subservient but also informing them that if they tried to break in they'd be shot I'd have expected them to bust in anyway and 'accidentally' let lose a few(dozen) rounds, 'fearing for their life' the entire time.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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