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Unconstitutional Search Warrants Can Get Cases Dismissed

The South Carolina Supreme Court has struck down a conviction for trafficking cocaine, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. The case overturned a 25-year prison sentence.

The February 22, 2017 decision, State v. Thompson, turned on whether the search warrant affidavit provided probable cause to justify the search of a home where deputies found drugs and guns.

The Facts of the Case

The case involved the search of a home at 120 River St. in Spartanburg.

To get the warrant authorizing the search, Spartanburg County Sheriff deputies prepared an affidavit—a sworn statement—explaining why they expected evidence of a crime would be found at the home. The affidavit detailed a three-year investigation involving Alphonso “Poo Bear” Thompson, who they alleged used the home to facilitate drug deals.

As required by the United States Constitution, a judge reviewed the affidavit to decide if it provided probable cause to search the home. He decided it did and signed the warrant authorizing the search. Deputies then searched the home. There, they found the drugs and guns leading to his conviction.

At trial, Thompson asked the judge to exclude the evidence found from the warrant, arguing the warrant provided no probable cause violating the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. The trial judge disagreed. So did the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court overturned it. Here’s why.

The Essence of Probable Cause to Search a Home

The Supreme Court concluded the search warrant affidavit provided no probable cause. In doing so, the Court relied on three basic rules of law on probable cause:

  • To determine if a search warrant affidavit contains probable cause under the Constitution, the “crucial element” is whether it’s reasonable to believe evidence of a crime will be found in the home.
  • In South Carolina, a judge decides if the affidavit proves a “fair probability” evidence of a crime will be found in the home.
  • Probable cause often exists when the affidavit provides a recent and direct connection between the evidence sought and the home.

The Court found the affidavit here fell short for two primary reasons. First, the affidavit contained no specific facts connecting drug-related activity to the home, for over a year before the warrant. In legal terms, the information in the affidavit was “stale.”

Second, while the affidavit did state officers observed Thompson stop at the home just before delivering cocaine in the past six months, the Court ruled that information “insufficiently specific to provide a fair probability sought by the search warrant would be located there.”

To sum up, while the affidavit alleged criminal acts connected to the home, the allegations weren’t recent or specific enough to inspire a reasonable belief or fair probability evidence of a crime would be found there.

It’s Never Over Till It’s Over

Just because a judge issues a search warrant doesn’t mean it’s valid. If you’ve been charged with a crime related to a search warrant of a home or anywhere else, you’ll need a sharp attorney with a trained eye who could help develop complex constitutional arguments that could be the difference between prison and freedom. Your freedom—and your rights—are too precious to assume the warrant got done right.

If you have any questions about a search warrant or your charges, feel free to contact us for a free, no-obligation meeting to discuss your case, your rights, and what we might be able to do to help you out of a bad jam.

 

Rob Usry
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Rob is a South Carolina personal injury and criminal defense lawyer.