Local Law Enforcement, Judges Need To Get On The Same Page

It is unfortunate that evidence seized during a drug raid last year has been ruled inadmissible in court.

Citing several cases, Chautauqua County Court Judge David Foley ruled that evidence seized from a Hazzard Street house can’t be used by prosecutors in court because the search warrant application for the raid relied upon a confidential informant whose information and reliability hadn’t been independently verified in writing. Instead, the reliability of the informant was attested to by a statement in the search warrant application, which stated the detective and “other members of the Jamestown Metro Task Force have utilized information provided by the (confidential informant) multiple times in the past and have found the information to be reliable and accurate.”

Several New York Appellate Division court rulings have held that such verbiage is not enough information to grant a search warrant. None of the cases are recent. People v. Montague (1967) states the judge must be informed of some of the underlying circumstances from which the informant concluded the drugs were where he claimed they were and some of the underlying circumstances from which the officer concluded the informant’s information was reliable or credible. People v. Ryerson (1969) set up a two-pronged test in which a search warrant application has to show that an informant is reliable and if the underlying circumstances as to how the informant came by the information demonstrate “sufficient probability” to allow the search of the premises or person. A third case, People v. Kaifetz (1970) held that an application stating the informant had been reliable in the past was not enough to allow the magistrate to make an independent decision about the informant’s reliability.

Patrick Swanson, county district attorney, told The Post-Journal that there are relatively few of these sort of issues with search warrants. Not only do we hope that is true, but it would seem as if this should be the last such instance of such poorly worded search warrant applications. Police officers put in too many hard, and dangerous, hours on some of these cases to see the fruits of their labors be ruled inadmissible in court. County prosecutors are understaffed and don’t need to try to argue a case in which substantial evidence can’t be admitted in court.

The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection of citizens “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.” Violating such a right shouldn’t be taken on a whim. No government should violate the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures with boilerplate language about a confidential informant’s reliability.

There are some who surely will criticize Judge David Foley for his ruling on the 2017 search warrant for homes at 21 Hazzard St. and 57 Colfax St. in Jamestown. Rules governing the information gleaned from confidential informants exists for good reason. Informants play a valuable role in law enforcement, and most police officers are good judges of an informant’s motives and veracity.

The Jamestown Police Department surely wouldn’t be able to make so many drug arrests without the use of informants. We also know informants can have many motivations for cooperating with police and are people who may be prone to lie. The integrity of our judicial system requires higher review of the documents that remove someone’s Fourth Amendment rights. Careful supervision is needed to protect reliable informants, good police officers and the public.

Foley’s ruling probably isn’t popular, but it is right. For the accused, the system worked as it should.

For the city, prosecutors, taxpayers and neighbors, the system failed because the results of a credible tip can’t be used in court. There is a disconnect between the judge who approved the search warrant and the judge who later ruled the search warrant application was deficient. There has been a disconnect between the judicial branch and the county District Attorney’s Office. We don’t know if Judge LaMancuso’s decision was based on more than the written record reviewed by Judge Foley. If it was, then the information was exchanged verbally; perhaps clearing up these sort of issues is a simple issue of amending the search warrant application so that it would withstand a possible legal challenge.

Something is amiss among the various law enforcement and judicial agencies in our county. Everybody needs to get on the same page.