The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled yesterday that search-warrant affidavits should not be assessed for hypertechnical language when they are drafted by a nonattorney.
The 6-1 majority upheld the state’s claim that an Upper Arlington detective did not knowingly mislead a judge with his search-warrant affidavit that described a woman as a victim. The justices ruled that the trial court improperly assessed the request to search Lawrence Dibble’s home using a hypertechnical definition.
“Because we determine that the trial court did abuse its discretion, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals, which upheld the trial court’s ruling, and remand the cause to the trial court to conduct a new suppression hearing consistent with our holding,” Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton wrote for the court.
Dissenting Justice Paul Pfeifer held that Dibble’s relationship with the labeled “victim” was not criminal because she was a consenting adult and could therefore not lead the detective to Dibble’s home.
“The detective, the trial court, and the court of appeals agreed that without the information regarding E.K., there was no probable cause to search Dibble’s residence,” Pfeifer wrote. “Since there was no basis for including information about E.K. in the supporting affidavit, we need not expend further judicial resources to determine that there was no basis for the search in this case.”
Case summary states that Dibble’s home was searched after Upper Arlington Police Detective Andrew Wuertz was granted a search warrant for the property.
In his affidavit seeking the warrant, Wuertz stated that one young woman, a former student at the Wellington School where Dibble taught, reported that Dibble had touched her inappropriately, asked her for back massages, and taken inappropriate photographs of her. A second woman, E.K., alleged that Dibble asked her for back massages when she was still a student and touched her while taking nude photographs of her after she graduated from Dibble’s school.
Wuertz described both of the women as “victims” in the affidavit and told the judge he was concerned that the photos could be in Dibble’s home.
During the execution of the search warrant, police seized a computer, cameras, DVDs and video tapes. The evidence seized led to Dibble’s arrest and charges for felony counts of voyeurism, misdemeanor counts of voyeurism, and a misdemeanor count of sexual imposition. The charges were not related to E.K.
At trial, Dibble moved to suppress evidence stemming from the search of his home because he claimed Wuertz was deliberately misleading in his request for the warrant. Dibble argued that E.K. could not be classified as a “victim” because she was over 18 when the alleged actions occurred.
“I think, in this case, nothing about that person, however we describe her, points back to Lawrence Dibble’s home,” Dibble’s attorney David Thomas said during oral arguments.
Wuertz testified that he still believed E.K. was a victim because the behavior started when she was Dibble’s student and Wuertz believed Dibble had manipulated E.K.
The trial court ruled that Wuertz had knowingly made false statements in his affidavit and granted Dibble’s motion to suppress. A 10th District Court of Appeals decision affirmed that judgment and the state appealed to the high court.
“The search warrant affidavit should be interpreted not in a hypertechnical fashion, but in a common sense fashion that is used by nonlawyers,” Franklin County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Steven Taylor stated during oral arguments.
Taylor claimed the definition of “victim” extended beyond the victims of crime and included women in E.K.’s situation.
“Contrary to the views of the lower courts, the word victim is not limited to victims of crime, the normal understanding of that extends to other people who have been wronged, deceived or manipulated,” he said.
On review, the justices found that Wuertz told the judge that E.K. had graduated high school before the alleged touching and photos were taken, according to his testimony.
“It is therefore difficult to understand how the courts could have deemed the affidavit misleading, since it stated clearly that Victim No. 2 (E.K.) had graduated before the ‘inappropriate’ touching began,” Stratton stated.
The majority held that using a hypertechnical analysis of the affidavit in regard to the use of the term “victim” was improper because it was drafted by a nonlawyer. It concluded that the case must be remanded so the trial court may reassess the motion to suppress evidence.
“A determination whether information in a search-warrant affidavit is false must take into account the nontechnical language used by nonlawyers,” Stratton continued.
The case is cited as State v. Dibble, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-4630.