MARYLAND V. GARRISON

This is an audio case brief of Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79 (1987). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents

FACTS

Baltimore police officers obtained and executed a warrant to search the person of Lawrence McWebb and “the premises known as 2036 Park Avenue third floor apartment.”

When the police applied for the warrant and when they conducted the search pursuant to the warrant, they reasonably believed that there was only one apartment on the premises described in the warrant. However, the third floor was divided into two apartments, one occupied by McWebb and one by Garrison. The officers entered Garrison apartment instead of McWebb’s apartment. Before the officers executing the warrant became aware that they were in a separate apartment occupied by Garrison, they discovered contraband in Garrison’s apartment. Garrison was therefore convicted for violating Maryland’s Controlled Substances Act.

The trial court denied Garrison’s motion to suppress the evidence seized from his apartment, and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed. The Court of Appeals of Maryland reversed and remanded with instructions to remand the case for a new trial.

The trial court found, and the two appellate courts did not dispute, that after making a reasonable investigation, including a verification of information obtained from a reliable informant, an exterior examination of the three-story building at 2036 Park Avenue, and an inquiry of the utility company, the officer who obtained the warrant reasonably concluded that there was only one apartment on the third floor and that it was occupied by McWebb. When six Baltimore police officers executed the warrant, they fortuitously encountered McWebb in front of the building and used his key to gain admittance to the first-floor hallway and to the locked door at the top of the stairs to the third floor. As they entered the vestibule on the third floor, they encountered Garrison, who was standing in the hallway area. The police could see into the interior of both McWebb’s apartment to the left and Garrison’s to the right, because the doors to both were open. Only after Garrison’s apartment had been entered and heroin, cash, and drug paraphernalia had been found did any of the officers realize that the third floor contained two apartments. As soon as they became aware of that fact, the search was discontinued. All of the officers reasonably believed that they were searching McWebb’s apartment. No further search of Garrison’s apartment was made.

Garrison appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

ISSUES

1- Whether the search warrant was valid given that Garrison’s apartment instead of McWebb’s apartment was searched.

2- Whether the manner in which the search was executed was reasonable under the fourth amendment.

RULE

The validity of a warrant must be assessed on the basis of the information that the officers disclosed, or had a duty to discover and to disclose, to the issuing Magistrate.The items of evidence that emerge after a warrant is issued have no bearing on whether the warrant  was validly issued.

An honest mistake by officers in the execution of a valid warrant that is objectively understandable and reasonable does not invalidate a search.

APPLICATION / ANALYSIS

The court begun its analysis by determining whether the factual mistake, which is the fact that, officers had a valid warrant to search McWebbs apartment but searched Garrison’s apartment instead, invalidated the warrant.

Here, the court found that this factual mistake does not invalidate the warrant because at the time the warrant was issued, it complied with all the requirements for a valid warrant.

Here is how the court explained its position:

The Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment categorically prohibits the issuance of any warrant except one “particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.” The manifest purpose of this particularity requirement was to prevent general searches. By limiting the authorization to search to the specific areas and things for which there is probable cause to search, the requirement ensures that the search will be carefully tailored to its justifications, and will not take on the character of the wide-ranging exploratory searches the Framers intended to prohibit. Thus, the scope of a lawful search is “defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.

In this case there is no claim that the “persons or things to be seized” were inadequately described or that there was no probable cause to believe that those things might be found in “the place to be searched” as it was described in the warrant. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we now know that the description of that place was broader than appropriate because it was based on the mistaken belief that there was only one apartment on the third floor of the building at 2036 Park Avenue. 

Plainly, if the officers had known, or even if they should have known, that there were two separate dwelling units on the third floor of 2036 Park Avenue, they would have been obligated to exclude Garrison’s apartment from the scope of the requested warrant. But we must judge the constitutionality of their conduct in light of the information available to them at the time they acted. 

Those items of evidence that emerge after the warrant is issued have no bearing on whether or not a warrant was validly issued. 

Just as the discovery of contraband cannot validate a warrant invalid when issued, so is it equally clear that the discovery of facts demonstrating that a valid warrant was unnecessarily broad does not retroactively invalidate the warrant. The validity of the warrant must be assessed on the basis of the information that the officers disclosed, or had a duty to discover and to disclose, to the issuing Magistrate. On the basis of that information, the warrant, insofar as it authorized a search that turned out to be ambiguous in scope, was valid when it issued.

Next the court answered the question of whether the execution of the warrant violated Garrison’s right to be secure in his home and free from unreasonable searches.

Here the court found that the officers entry into the third floor was legal because they carried a warrant for the premises, they were accompanied by McWebb who provided them with the keys to open the door and enter the third floor common area. The court found the officers search of Garrison’s apartment to be an honest mistake that was objectively understandable and reasonable. The court found such a mistake does not invalid a search that was executed on a valid warrant.

Here is how the court explained its position:

If the officers had known, or should have known, that the third floor contained two apartments before they entered the living quarters on the third floor, and thus had been aware of the error in the warrant, they would have been obligated to limit their search to McWebb’s apartment. Moreover, as the officers recognized, they were required to discontinue the search of Garrison’s apartment as soon as they discovered that there were two separate units on the third floor and therefore were put on notice of the risk that they might be in a unit erroneously included within the terms of the warrant. The officers’ conduct and the limits of the search were based on the information available as the search proceeded. While the purposes justifying a police search strictly limit the permissible extent of the search, the Court has also recognized the need to allow some latitude for honest mistakes that are made by officers in the dangerous and difficult process of making arrests and executing search warrants.

The validity of the search of Garrison’s apartment pursuant to a warrant authorizing the search of the entire third floor depends on whether the officers’ failure to realize the overbreadth of the warrant was objectively understandable and reasonable.

Here it unquestionably was. The objective facts available to the officers at the time suggested no distinction between McWebb’s apartment and the third-floor premises.

For that reason, the officers properly responded to the command contained in a valid warrant even if the warrant is interpreted as authorizing a search limited to McWebb’s apartment rather than the entire third floor. Prior to the officers’ discovery of the factual mistake, they perceived McWebb’s apartment and the third-floor premises as one and the same; therefore their execution of the warrant reasonably included the entire third floor. Under either interpretation of the warrant, the officers’ conduct was consistent with a reasonable effort to ascertain and identify the place intended to be searched within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

CONCLUSION

The court held the the warrant could not be retroactively rendered invalid because the warrant was valid when issued based on the information available to the officers at the time it was issued. And secondly, the execution of the warrant did not violate Garrison’s fourth amendment rights because the officers mistake in searching his apartment was an honest mistake that was objectively understandable and reasonable.

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