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Greater RI protections for wiretap warrants: No federal “good-faith” exception to exclusionary rule

RI Supreme and Superior Court Building, Providence. (Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel, via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0)

The RI Supreme Court this morning (May 5) ruled unanimously, 5-0, in a consolidated case involving multiple criminal defendants (State v. Deric S. McGuire et al.) that a failure to follow strict state law requirements for wiretap warrants totally invalidates those warrants, justifying a suppressing of evidence for all of the fruits of the invalid warrants. While recognizing that federal jurisprudence might allow a “good-faith” exception to admit the evidence because none of the parties intended to break the law regarding wiretap warrants, the Court ruled the RI State Constitution provides greater protection against warrantless searches and seizures and therefore no “good-faith” exception applies.

The RI Supreme Court quotes its own prior ruling in Pimental v. Department of Transportation, 561 A.2d 1348, 1350 (R.I. 1989), that “[t]he [United States] Supreme Court… has recognized the right and power of state courts as final interpreters of state law ‘to impose higher standards on searches and seizures under state constitutions than required by the Federal Constitution.’” Pimental held that traffic stop roadblocks looking for drunk drivers were unconstitutional in RI, despite being allowed under federal law and used in other states.

The Court explained the background of McGuire: “These consolidated cases arose from a Rhode Island State Police investigation into alleged outlaw motorcycle gangs, which led to an indictment in November 2018 against forty-one defendants charging 424 criminal counts, including possession of and possession with intent to deliver controlled substances, conspiracy, and unlawful possession of firearms. As part of the investigation, from May 2017 through May 2018, an Assistant Attorney General presented applications for several orders authorizing the interception of wire, electronic, and oral communications and orders extending, amending, or terminating the wiretaps (the wiretap orders).”

The error arose because the RI Wiretap Act, §12-5.1-3, specifically requires that wiretap orders be issued by either the presiding justice of the Superor Court, Alice B. Gibney, or, if she is disqualified for any reason, by the senior associate justice, Robert D. Krause. When Gibney took medical leave, she designated Krause to act as presiding justice under §8-3-4. However, because Krause managed the court gun calendar, Gibney designated another associate justice, Melanie Wilk Thunberg, to handle wiretap orders. When Gibney returned from medical leave and resumed her duties, relieving Krause of his status as acting presiding justice, she left wiretap orders assigned to Thunberg who had been handling them. (The only other authority specifically restricted to the presiding justice is that of granting immunity from prosecution under §12-17-15.)

When criminal charges were filed, the numerous defendants moved to suppress evidence gained from the wiretaps, arguing the specific provisions of the Wiretap Act superseded the general provisions of statute elsewhere, making the warrants invalid because they were issued by Thunberg, who while an associate justice was neither the presiding justice nor the most senior associate justice, the only two authorized to issue wiretap warrants. The trial court agreed with the defendants and ordered the evidence flowing from the wiretaps to be excluded so it could not be used against them.

Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court affirming the decision of the Superior Court trial proceeding below, went out of her way to emphasize repeatedly that neither the Attorney General nor the Superior Court justices involved thought they were doing anything wrong: “…it is manifest on the record before us that all executive and judicial officers involved in this series of events acted in the best interest of the State of Rhode Island, and that Justice Thunberg was a neutral and detached judicial officer who is highly competent to perform such an endeavor. However, she simply lacked the statutory authority to receive the applications and issue the wiretap orders. Thus, we conclude that the wiretap orders were invalid, and, consequently, the interception of communications pursuant to those orders amounted to ‘unauthorized intrusions’ into these defendants’ private communications.”

Firstly, the Supreme Court held that the issuance of the wiretap warrants was clearly invalid, as the specific provisions of the Wiretap Act were violated.

Secondly, the Court held that suppression of the evidence was the correct remedy. The state argued that precedent had allowed evidence to be used despite technical defects in search warrants that incorrectly omitted mandatory language, but the Court held that to be a much less serious matter, citing a series of previous rulings going back to 1975 that held wiretap warrants to a higher standard than ordinary search warrants.

Thirdly, and most importantly as future precedent, the Court held that no “good-faith” exception applies to an invalid wiretap warrant as might be allowed under federal law: “Alternatively, the state asks this Court to adopt the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule as provided for in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984). In Leon, the United States Supreme Court created an exception to the exclusionary rule ‘when an officer acting with objective good faith has obtained a search warrant from a judge or magistrate and acted within its scope.’… We are hard-pressed to conceive that a judicially-created exception to a judicially-created exclusionary rule, such as the Leon good-faith rule, is applicable to the strict statutory mandates under review in these cases.” In other words, the RI Supreme Court explicitly held that evidence that is the fruit of an invalid wiretap warrant is inadmissible at trial and must be excluded because of state law, even if it would be admissible under federal law, recognizing that Rhode Island citizens have greater constitutional protections against improper search and seizure.

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