People v. Mitchell, 83SA224

Citation678 P.2d 990
Case DateMarch 05, 1984
CourtSupreme Court of Colorado

Page 990

678 P.2d 990
The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado Plaintiff-Appellant,
Robert D. MITCHELL Defendant-Appellee.
No. 83SA224.
Supreme Court of Colorado,
En Banc.
March 5, 1984.

Page 991

Robert R. Gallagher, Jr., Dist. Atty., Catherine DiSante, Deputy Dist. Atty., Littleton, for plaintiff-appellant.

Steven Taffet, Denver, for defendant-appellee.

QUINN, Justice.

The People in this interlocutory appeal challenge a ruling of the district court suppressing a vial of cocaine seized from the defendant, Robert D. Mitchell, in the course of a search incident to an arrest based on an erroneously issued arrest warrant for an unpaid traffic fine. The district court held that the arrest warrant was void from the time of its issuance, thereby rendering the arrest and search illegal and requiring the suppression of the evidence seized incident to the arrest. We affirm the suppression ruling.


The pertinent facts are not in dispute. On December 18, 1982, Officer Mark Sigler of the Greenwood Village Police Department stopped the defendant for driving seventy-five miles per hour in a fifty-five mile zone. The officer took the defendant's driver's license and, in keeping with routine procedure, went back to his police vehicle in order to inquire of the police dispatcher whether there were any outstanding warrants for the defendant. The dispatcher scanned a computer screen and informed Officer Sigler that there was an outstanding Greenwood Village arrest warrant for the defendant's failure to pay a previous traffic fine. The dispatcher then manually examined the warrant file at the police station and confirmed the outstanding arrest warrant for the defendant.

Officer Sigler arrested the defendant on the outstanding warrant and took him to the Greenwood Village police station where he was searched. A small cylindrical vial

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containing cocaine was seized from one of the defendant's pockets, and the defendant was charged with possession of a controlled substance. 1 It was later determined that the Greenwood Village warrant had been issued in error, since the defendant had actually paid the traffic fine prior to the issuance of the warrant.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress. Conceding that the initial stop for speeding was valid, the defendant asserted that the seizure of the cocaine was the product of an unconstitutional arrest based on an invalid arrest warrant. The People acknowledged at the suppression hearing that the defendant had timely paid the traffic fine and that the Greenwood Village warrant had been issued in error. The district court ruled that the defendant's arrest was based on a warrant that was void from its issuance and accordingly suppressed any evidence seized from the defendant at the station house as the product of an unconstitutional arrest. 2

The People challenge the suppression ruling on the basis of section 16-3-308, C.R.S.1973 (1983 Supp.), which provides that evidence otherwise admissible in a criminal proceeding shall not be suppressed when seized by a peace officer as a result of a "good faith mistake" or "technical violation." The defendant, in contrast, contends that an arrest based upon an invalid warrant does not qualify as a "good faith mistake" or "technical violation" within the meaning of section 16-3-308. We conclude that section 16-3-308 does not apply to an arrest based on a warrant void from its inception due to the absence of any cause whatever for its issuance.


The constitutional proscription against an unlawful seizure of the person serves as the starting point of our analysis. Both the United States and Colorado Constitutions require that an arrest warrant be founded on probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, particularly describing the person to be seized. U.S. Const. Amend. IV; Colo. Const. Art. II, Sec. 7.

In Whiteley v. Warden, 401 U.S. 560, 91 S.Ct. 1031, 28 L.Ed.2d 306 (1971), the United States Supreme Court addressed this constitutional requirement of probable cause under circumstances somewhat similar to those present here. In Whiteley, the sheriff of Carbon County, Wyoming, acting on a tip, signed a conclusory complaint reciting nothing more than that Harold Whiteley and Jack Daley unlawfully broke into and entered a building identified as the Rustic Bar in Saratoga, Wyoming, on November 23, 1964. A justice of the peace issued an arrest warrant based on the complaint, and the sheriff then issued a police radio bulletin describing the two men, the type of car they were driving, and the amount and type of money taken in the crime. A police officer in another county, relying on the bulletin, made a warrantless arrest of Whiteley and Daley when he saw them in the described vehicle. The officer searched the vehicle and seized various incriminating items, including some coins taken in the crime. The Supreme Court held that the arrest and the seizure of

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evidence incident thereto violated the Fourth Amendment because, first, the complaint was factually insufficient to support an independent judgment that probable cause existed for the warrant, and, second, the arresting officer had no information to corroborate the report that the suspect had committed the crime. The Court then addressed the state's contention that the police bulletin itself was sufficient to validate the arrest:

"We do not, of course, question that the Laramie police were entitled to act on the strength of the radio bulletin. Certainly police officers called upon to aid other officers in executing arrest warrants are entitled to assume that the officers requesting aid offered the magistrate the information requisite to support an independent judicial assessment of probable cause. Where, however, the contrary turns out to be true, an otherwise illegal arrest cannot be insulated from challenge by the decision of the instigating officer to rely on fellow officers to make the arrest." 401 U.S. at 568, 91 S.Ct. at 1037, 28 L.Ed.2d at 313.

While this language may suggest that an arresting officer acting on a police bulletin "should not be held personally responsible in a civil action or disciplinary proceedings if it turns out that there was no probable cause at the source," there can be no doubt that Whiteley requires the suppression of evidence seized by the arresting officer "if facts adding up to probable cause were not in the hands of the officer or agency which gave the order or made the request." 1 W. LaFave, Search and Seizure § 3.5 at 623-24 (1978); see People v. Gouker, 665 P.2d 113 (Colo.1983) (existence of an outstanding arrest warrant provides a prima facie showing of probable cause, but person arrested may challenge warrant's validity at suppression hearing). Whiteley applies with even stronger force to evidence seized as the result of an arrest based solely upon a warrant that is totally lacking in any factual support for its issuance. See People v. Decuir, 84 Ill.App.3d 531, 39 Ill.Dec. 912, 405 N.E.2d 891 (1980) (Whiteley requires suppression of evidence seized in arrest resulting from mistaken dispatch that arrest warrant still outstanding, when in fact warrant had been quashed long before arrest); People v. Jennings, 54 N.Y.2d 518, 522, 430 N.E.2d 1282, 1285, 446 N.Y.S.2d 229, 231-32 (1981) ("[I]n making an arrest a police officer may rely upon information communicated to him by another police officer ... that an individual is the subject named in a warrant and should be taken into custody [, but] if ... the warrant turns out to be invalid, any evidence seized as a result of the arrest will be suppressed notwithstanding the reasonableness of the arresting officer's reliance upon the communication").

In arguing that the defendant's arrest was constitutionally valid, the People rely primarily on Hill v. California, 401 U.S. 797, 91 S.Ct. 1106, 28 L.Ed.2d 484 (1971). We find this reliance misplaced. In Hill, police officers, having probable cause to arrest Hill for robbery, went to his apartment where they were met by a man who matched Hill's description but who identified himself as Miller and told the officers that he was waiting for Hill's return. The officers believed Miller was in fact Hill, arrested him, searched the apartment, and seized guns, stolen property, and other evidentiary items. Hill was ultimately charged and convicted of robbery. The Supreme Court upheld the search of Hill's apartment as incident to a valid arrest because the officers reasonably believed Miller to be Hill and probable cause existed for Hill's arrest:

"[T]he officers in good faith believed Miller was Hill and arrested him. They were quite wrong as it turned out, and subjective good-faith belief could not in itself justify either the arrest or the subsequent search. But sufficient probability, not certainty, is the touchstone of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment and on the record before us the officers' mistake was understandable and the arrest a reasonable response to the situation facing them at the time." 401 U.S. at 803-04, 91 S.Ct. at 1110-11, 28 L.Ed.2d at 490.

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The decision in Hill, which obviously turned on the existence of probable cause to make an arrest in the first instance, did not address the issue of the validity of an arrest pursuant to a warrant unsupported by probable cause, whereas Whiteley expressly resolved that precise issue. Since the issue raised on this appeal also involves the validity of an arrest based on a warrant erroneously issued and unsupported by probable cause, Whiteley is the controlling precedent. See Sanders v. United States, 339 A.2d 373, 379 (D.C.Ct.App.1975) (Whiteley applies where "there is an infirmity inherent in the foundation of the warrant," such as an insufficient affidavit; Hill, in contrast, applies where the arrest warrant is constitutionally valid and the police, acting "in good faith" and with "reasonable, articulable grounds to believe that the suspect is the intended arrestee,"...

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