To Obtain a Search Warrant, Law Enforcement Must Provide Judge Information About the Informant’s Credibility

On April 23, 2014, the Court of Appeals decided State v. Robinson, holding that law enforcement did not provide the judge information about the informant’s credibility that is necessary to support the issuance of a search warrant.  Robinson is significant because it rejected an unsubstantiated statement—that is far too common–contained in the search warrant affidavit that the informant was reliable.  The affidavit provided:

 A confidential and reliable informant working for the Horry County Police Department purchased a quantity of off white powder substance represented as being cocaine and field-testing positive for cocaine attributes from the occupants of the house identified [at Robinson’s residence].  That the informant has been able to make recent continuous purchases of illegal drugs from this residence leads to the affiant’s belief that there is the possibility there may be more illegal drugs located at this residence.

The search warrant was attacked for two reasons.  First, the affidavit left out the important fact that the informant was not the person that actually purchased the illegal drugs.  The informant used a third party to purchase the drugs.  The Court held the absence of this fact to be a material misrepresentation of fact.  The Court, nevertheless, concluded that the search warrant might still be supported by probable cause, if the informant was telling the truth.

Second, the Court pointed out, “The only information in the affidavit about the events and circumstances at Robinson’s residence, and thus the only information provided to the issuing judge regarding the existence of probable cause, came from the informant.”  Because law enforcement did not demonstrate the reliability of the informant to the judge issuing the search warrant, the Court of Appeals suppressed the evidence.

A judge can issue a search warrant based on information from an informant under two circumstances.  Law enforcement can corroborate the information provided by the informant.  Under these circumstances, the informant’s credibility usually does not matter.  Also, law enforcement can provide the judge with information about the informant’s demonstrated reliability.  Neither occurred in Robinson.

Robinson is significant because the Court rejected the generic statement in the search warrant that the informant was reliable.  Reviewing courts, therefore, must look beyond such statements that often appear in search warrants and consider specific information about the informant’s reliability.

Please click this link to read the Court of Appeals opinion in State v. Robinson.