1. “The court of appeals departed from the proper standard of review by substituting its own judgment for that of the magistrate who viewed the warrant affidavit and found probable cause.”
2. “The court of appeals employed a heightened standard for probable cause, departing from the flexible standard required by law.”
Two masked African-American men were seen fleeing a murder scene in cul-de-sac in a white four-door sedan. Baldwin’s white four-door sedan was recorded on video entering the cul-de-sac and circling the neighborhood four times the day before. A witness said an African-American man was driving. Police arrested Baldwin, seized his sedan, and discovered Baldwin’s cell phone inside. They obtained a warrant to search his phone. In a motion to suppress, Baldwin argued that the affidavit was insufficient to support probable cause. The trial court granted the motion.
The State appealed. An en banc majority of the Fourth Court of Appeals affirmed the suppression ruling. It concluded that there were no facts from which to infer that “witnesses all saw the same sedan or that the surveillance video recorded the same sedan as the one seen by the witnesses [fleeing the murder scene].” Therefore, the affidavit failed to tie Baldwin or his cell phone to the murder. The majority concluded: “It would strain credulity to conclude in a county with nearly five million people that evidence of a crime probably would be found in someone’s car just because he was in the neighborhood on the day before the offense in a car the same color as the one driven by a suspect who also happened to be Black.” Additionally, extending the nexus to Baldwin’s cell phone is even more tenuous when the only rationale given is that it is common for people to communicate their plans using a cell phone.
The dissent faulted the majority for failing to defer to the magistrate’s implied findings. The court should abide by the magistrate’s implied finding that all the witnesses saw the same sedan. A reasonable person could conclude that the sightings on a street with no through traffic were too similar and coincidental to be unrelated. The officer’s affidavit statement that people use cell phones for planning has significance here since there were two men who fled the scene. A magistrate could have concluded that the joint venture required coordination and communication.
The State now advances the points made by the dissent.