Courts Should Not Apply Strict Rules of Grammar and Syntax When Reviewing Search Warrant Affidavits

“On Sunday, he advised me that he had been in Russia” is not the same as “He advised me that he had been in Russia on Sunday.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals considered a similar ambiguity in an Affidavit for a search warrant in State v. McClain. The Affiant stated in the affidavit, “In the past 72 hours, a confidential informant advised” the defendant had been seen in possession of Meth. Without more, this purports to state that the informant provided the information in the past 72 hours and DOES NOT state when the informant actually observed the behavior – a critical piece of information, indeed.

The trial court found the affidavit deficient and suppressed the evidence that was seized during the search. The 7th District Court of Appeals (Amarillo) affirmed. The CCA now reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that the search warrant based on this affidavit was proper.

The CCA cautions trial courts not to view such affidavits in a “hypertechnical” manner.

Since the Fourth Amendment strongly prefers searches to be conducted pursuant to search warrant, the United States Supreme Court has provided incentives for law-enforcement officials to obtain warrants instead of conducting warrantless searches. One incentive is a less-strict standard for reviewing the propriety of a search conducted pursuant to a warrant. In this situation, courts must give great deference to the magistrate’s probable-cause determination.

The CCA, with the exception of Judge Johnson who dissented, held that the lower courts violated the prohibition on hypertechnical review of warrant affidavits when it strictly applied rules of grammar and syntax in its analysis. The CCA further held:

Reviewing courts should only be concerned with whether the magistrate’s determination in interpreting and drawing reasonable inferences from the affidavit was done in a commonsensical and realistic manner. And reviewing courts should defer to all reasonable inferences that the magistrate could have made.