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Police Officers' Good Faith Reliance on Validity of Warrant Justified Apartment Entry and Search For Drugs, Wisconsin Court of Appeals Holds

 

"If a police officer reasonably relies in good faith on the validity of a warrant, any evidence he discovers and seizes isn't subject to suppression," says Van Hollen.  "Here, Milwaukee police reasonably believed they had an open felony warrant for Robinson's arrest.  That, plus probable cause to believe Robinson lived at the apartment, was enough to justify the entry and the search."

 

MADISON -  In a decision and opinion hailed by Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held today that Milwaukee police properly entered an apartment occupied by Terion Lamar Robinson, even though what police believed was an open felony warrant for Robinson's arrest was actually a commitment order that had not been signed by a judge.  The officers' good faith reliance on the validity of the warrant, coupled with probable cause to believe Robinson was in the apartment, justified the entry and the subsequent discovery of drugs and evidence of drug dealing.

 

Van Hollen explained:  "If a police officer reasonably relies in good faith on the validity of a warrant, any evidence he discovers and seizes isn't subject to suppression.  Here, Milwaukee police reasonably believed they had an open felony warrant for Robinson's arrest.  That, plus probable cause to believe Robinson lived at the apartment, was enough to justify the entry and the search."

 

Milwaukee police received information from a citizen informant that Robinson sold marijuana from his apartment.  The informant gave police Robinson's name, his address, his apartment number and his cell phone number.  A search of computer records revealed what police believed to be an outstanding felony warrant for Robinson's arrest.  It was instead a commitment order for unpaid fines from an earlier conviction.  Police went to Robinson's apartment, knocked, and attempted to contact Robinson by telephone.  They heard footsteps running from the door.  Concerned that Robinson was planning on escaping or destroying evidence, police forced the door open and entered the apartment.  They discovered marijuana and evidence of drug dealing.

 

Robinson argued that the apartment search was unlawful because the warrant relied upon by police was a commitment order, not a warrant, and therefore police had no lawful authority to enter the apartment.  Relying on arguments made by attorneys from the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held in pertinent part that police acted properly.

 

From the court's decision and opinion:

 

In its decision, the trial court observed that the citizen who came into he police station told the officer that Robinson "was selling marijuana from his apartment." (Emphasis added.) The citizen knew the address of Robinson's apartment as well as his cell phone number. In addition, the trial court noted that when the police arrived at the apartment and called the cell phone number given by the citizen it rang inside the apartment, and when the officer called out Robinson's name, he answered. The trial court noted that these facts corroborated the citizen's statements that Robinson lived at the address given by the informant and had a particular cell phone number. The trial court concluded that: "This is very, very strong evidence that the defendant was staying there or, in fact, lived there." The trial court also mentioned that this conclusion was bolstered by much of Robinson's testimony. Robinson, while denying that he lived at the apartment, did concede that he was allowed in, could let other people in, and had clothes and musical equipment in the apartment. Finally, a witness called by the defense at the motion hearing claimed she was at "Terion's house" on the date he was arrested. 

 

Here, the officers believed that they had a valid felony arrest warrant for Robinson. They knew that he was in the apartment and refused to open the door. They believed that Robinson lived at the apartment because two pieces of information given by the citizen were corroborated. Robinson was in the identified apartment and had the cell phone number given by the informant. When the police heard footsteps moving away from the door suggesting a possible escape attempt or a destruction of evidence, exigent circumstances were created permitting the officers to kick in the door. 

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals' decision and opinion in State of Wisconsin v. Terion Lamar Robinson, No. 2008AP266-CR, appears on the court's website:


http://www.wicourts.gov/ca/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=36947

 

The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office represented the State of Wisconsin in Milwaukee County Circuit Court.  Assistant Attorney General Michael C. Sanders represented the State in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.