|Protests in Ferguson, MO|
The shooting of Michael Brown has focused national attention on questionable police actions in public places. It also has shined light on law enforcement's increasing use of military-style weaponry in the civilian environment.
These clearly are valid concerns, but my own experience indicates scrutiny of police should go even further. Almost one year ago, I was arrested (for the first time in my life) in a private place, inside my own garage. It was for alleged civil contempt of court and was not a criminal matter, and the arresting officer entered my home without showing a warrant or saying he had a warrant. In fact, Shelby County, Alabama, officer Chris Blevins did not even tell me he was there to arrest me until he had knocked me to a concrete floor three times and Maced me in the face.
At a subsequent legal proceeding, a judge instructed prosecutor Tonya Willingham to produce any warrants related to my address. She responded that she did not have any.
What does this mean? Long-standing Alabama law holds that an unsigned search warrant is "void on its face" and any resulting search is illegal under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Evidence in my case suggests there was no search warrant at all, so that would appear to make Blevins' entry into my home illegal.
This all involves the Fourth-Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, and an Alabama stolen-property case shows it's important for warrants to exist and be handled properly.
The case dates to 1975, when an Alabama woman saw her arrest in a copper-theft case overturned because a search warrant was unsigned. At first glance, that case might seem to have little in common with my arrest on civil-contempt charges growing from a preliminary injunction in a defamation case. After all, analysts from all sides of the political spectrum seem to agree that the injunction in my case represents an unlawful prior restraint under the First Amendment.
Such weighty matters were not present in Effie Kelley's copper-theft case; it seemed to be a relatively straightforward criminal matter. But Kelley saw her conviction overturned because a municipal judge had not signed the search warrant. That's where Kelley v. State, 316 So. 2d 233 (1975) and the Legal Schnauzer case seem to intersect.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals found the lack of a signature made the search warrant "void on its face," making the search "unauthorized and illegal."
My case involved an arrest warrant, not a search warrant. But the Kelley opinion makes clear that the same principle applies to both kinds of warrants. That notion dates to at least 1903, and we will take a closer look at it in an upcoming post.
For now, let's ponder the appellate courts key words in Kelley v. State:
Since the search warrant was not signed by the municipal judge, it is our opinion that it was void on its face and any search and seizure made thereunder was unauthorized and illegal. A judgment is void on its face when it only requires an inspection of the judgment roll to demonstrate its invalidity. . . The same is true of a search warrant when it shows on its face that it lacks the signature of any magistrate, such being the only authorized officer to put life in the paper.
Did any authorized officer "put life" in an arrest warrant for my case? Well, as we showed in previous post, courtroom evidence indicates there was no warrant in my case at all. Video played in court showed that Deputy Blevins never showed me a warrant, never told me he had a warrant, and never said I was under arrest until he had knocked me to a concrete floor three times and sprayed me in the face with Mace.
Based on evidence in court, there was no warrant in my case, making my arrest "unauthorized and illegal."
Unlike Michael Brown, I was fortunate to live through my encounter with rogue police officers. But I still have nightmares about it--and I doubt that they ever will go away.