In Barrentine v. State, Florida's Second District Court of Appeal explains that, in order to get a warrant to search a home, police must show not only that they have probable cause to believe illegal activity is happening on the property, but that the belief is based on evidence from the not-too-distant past.
Lewis Barrentine was convicted on charges of drug possession, maintaining a structure for selling controlled substances and possession of equipment for animal fighting or baiting after police searched his house on suspicion of animal cruelty.
Prior to conducting the search, officers obtained a warrant to search the property for evidence based on information contained in an affidavit completed by Detective Paul Wright. Wright stated in the affidavit that three separate witnesses - two neighbors and a land surveyor - had contacted the local sheriff's office with concerns about possible dog and rooster fighting and related cruelty. The land surveyor in particular reported seeing emaciated pit bulls as well as aggressive roosters missing large swatches of feathers. Aerial photographs from the land surveyor's website also showed a large number of dogs held individually on the property. Based on his experience policing animal fighting and cruelty, Wright said he believed there was illegal fighting going on at the property.
A trial court denied Barrentine's motion to suppress the evidence found during the search, arguing that there was not sufficient probable cause to support the warrant. On appeal, however, the Second District agreed with Barrentine that the officers had not established a fair probability of finding evidence on the premises at the time the warrant was signed.
"The deficiency in the affidavit is its failure to establish the relevant time period during which the animals were observed on Barrentine's property," the Court explained. "To establish a fair probability that evidence of a crime will be found at the place to be searched, the affidavit must reflect the specific time of the illegal activity that forms the basis for the alleged probable cause."
Here, the neighbors reported potential animal cruelty on Barrentine's property roughly three years before police sought the warrant, according to the Court. Although the land surveyor's report was made just one day before the warrant was issued, the Court said it was unclear when the surveyor actually made his observations. Nor was there any indication of when the aerial photos were taken. Thus, the police were unable to establish probable cause by showing that the animals were observed "at some point in the not-too-distant past," the Court said.
As a result, the Court reversed the trial court's decision and remanded the case back for further proceedings. Nevertheless, the Court also instructed the trial court to consider the prosecution's claim that the search was valid under the "good faith exception," which provides that evidence obtained in reliance on a warrant from a neutral and detached magistrate is admissible. The Court directed the lower court to determine whether the officers' reliance on the warrant was reasonable.
If you are facing criminal charges in Florida, it's important to obtain the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney who is familiar with search and seizure issues and other legal intricacies. The St. Johns County criminal defense attorneys at Canan Law are dedicated to providing our clients with aggressive, competent and high-quality representation.
Call us or stop by our offices at 43 Cincinnati Avenue in downtown St. Augustine if you have any questions about a pending criminal matter.