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Published: Wednesday, 9/19/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

TOLEDO MUNICIPAL COURT

Warrants subject to increased scrutiny

Deputy clerks asking police more questions

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Deputy clerks in Toledo Municipal Court will be asking more questions of the officers seeking arrest warrants – a procedure put in place recently in response to concerns over the validity of the warrants.

Clerk of Court Vallie Bowman-English said she has trained the more than 50 deputy clerks in the criminal/traffic division on a new procedure for accepting criminal complaints. Whereas before, the clerk’s office thought of itself as a receiver and keeper of information, Ms. Bowman-English said that it will now make a neutral determination whether evidence exists to issue a warrant.

In particular, a finding of probable cause will be made, she said.

“It casts a shadow over the entire system when there is a judge who disagrees with how the warrants have been filed,” Ms. Bowman-English said of a recent Lucas County Common Pleas Court opinion that the clerk’s general procedure for swearing in affidavits violates the United States and Ohio Constitutions as well as the Rules of Criminal Procedure.

“We don’t want people to have doubts,” she added. “We are going to make the probable cause determination.”

Dating back decades, warrants have been issued through municipal court when officers provide general information about the defendant and the alleged crime and swear under oath that it is true. But until now, officers have not been asked to provide how they came to suspect the named person.

That has since changed.

The modifications in procedure evolved when a defendant charged with murder argued that his initial arrest was illegal because the misdemeanor warrant on which he was arrested was invalid. At issue was the fact that no independent party made a determination of probable cause before the warrant was issued.

In an Aug. 27 decision, Judge James Jensen agreed that municipal court’s long-standing practice of issuing arrest warrants violated state law and the U.S. Constitution. However, he opined that the defendant’s arrest was conducted in good faith and so all evidence collected during his arrest was admissible at his trial.

Brandon Hoffman, 29, of 333 Chapin St., has since pleaded no contest to aggravated murder and aggravated robbery for the Nov. 26 beating death of Scott Holzhauer and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His attorney, David Klucas, has since filed a notice that he intends to appeal Judge Jensen’s ruling.

The judge noted in his ruling that the precedent case already decided in the appellate court was on-point with the facts presented in Hoffman’s case and so he was bound by the decision.

“Here, there is strong evidence that the Toledo Municipal Court has been acting as a rubber stamp to the Toledo police for … years,” the opinion stated. “Nonetheless, the Toledo Police Department was acting under the impression that such practice was constitutional.”

The change in procedure has been welcomed by prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys who noted that the long-standing practice potentially could have created future problems now that the issue was brought to light.

“If the court believes there’s an error in the system, we have a duty to correct that error once we’ve been put on notice,” said Jeff Lingo, chief of the criminal division for the prosecutor’s office. “With the cooperation of the Toledo Municipal Court clerk, that error, if it existed, is corrected.”

Attorney Jerry Phillips said that ultimately, the changes are getting all warrants into compliance.

“It’s what we’re supposed to do. …Nobody ever challenged it. But now we know that we need to do it the right way,” said attorney Jerry Phillips. “If it happens to correct one problem out of 1,000, then it was well worth it.”

In Ohio, criminal rules dictate that a warrant may be issued if it appears “from the complaint, or from an affidavit or affidavits filed with the complaint, that there is probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed and that the defendant committed it.”

The law states that such determination can be made by a judge, magistrate, clerk of court, or officer of the court designated by the judge. Thousands of criminal complaints are filed with the clerk each year.

Toledo Municipal Court issues warrants for not only Toledo police but police in Ottawa Hills, Washington Township, and the University of Toledo.

Toledo Police spokesman Sgt. Joe Heffernan said the department made changes July 31 by adding more information to the affidavits, including “factual justification for the arrest.” Specifically the officers must explain why they believe the suspect committed the crime. Sergeant Heffernan said that the changes  have created no problems.

Ms. Bowman-English noted that the city prosecutor’s office has also set up a dedicated line for officers to call if they need legal advice when filing a complaint.

She reiterated that she reviewed precedent cases as soon as the issue first arose. But she said the changes will create more confidence in the judicial system.

The clerk acknowledged that deputy clerks were apprehensive about their new role but she said she explained that they were neutral observers making sure the complaints were done correctly.

“The only difference now is that people can be confident in the process,” she said.

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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