The Supreme Court agreed Monday to determine how difficult it should be for criminal defendants to win appeals aimed at barring use of evidence seized by police without a search warrant.
The justices agreed to hear an appeal in a Wisconsin case by two men who say cocaine seized from their car should not have been allowed as evidence against them.
In the case, Saul Ornelas and Ismael Ornelas-Ledesma were arrested at a Milwaukee motel on Dec. 11, 1992, after a sheriff’s deputy spotted their car with a California license plate. A computer check showed it was registered to a known drug dealer.
The two men came out of the motel and got into the car. Police said they got permission from the men to search the car. One officer said he noticed a loose door panel and removed it, finding a bag that contained cocaine.
Ornelas and Ornelas-Ledesma pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute about 4.4 pounds of cocaine, but challenged a federal judge’s ruling that the cocaine found in the car could be used as evidence.
Ornelas was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, while Ornelas-Ledesma was sentenced to five years.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the convictions and ordered a federal judge to reconsider whether there was probable cause to remove the door panel during the search.
A federal magistrate recommended suppression of the seized drugs. But a federal judge reinstated the convictions, saying the removal of the door panel was supported by probable cause.
The 7th Circuit court upheld the convictions based on its finding that the judge did not commit “clear error.”
In the appeal granted Supreme Court review, lawyers for the two men said the appeals court should have conducted its own review instead of deferring to the judge’s probable-cause determination.
In 1983, the Supreme Court set a “clear error” standard for reviewing judges’ decisions in searches for which a warrant was issued. The same standard should not be used for reviewing searches conducted without a warrant, the appeal said.
“When the standard of review in warrant and non-warrant cases is the same, there is no incentive for the officer or prosecuting attorney to go through the trouble of getting a warrant,” the appeal said.
Justice Department lawyers urged the high court to deny review, saying the convictions would have been upheld even under a stricter standard of review.