The Ottumwa Courier

June 22, 2013

The judge as gatekeeper when the goal is justice

By JUDGE LUCY J. GAMON
Ottumwa Courier

---- — “… no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Constitution of the United States, Amendment 4

It is 2 a.m. on a dark and stormy night. The police are knocking at my front door. My heart is pounding, and my mouth is dry … but not because I am in trouble with the law. No, I am well aware of why the police have come at such an unlikely hour: They want me to review an application for a search warrant.

A judge has arguably no higher duty than to examine such applications. The judge is looking for “probable cause,” a connection between suspected criminal activity, the place to be searched and the items to be seized. Even at 2 a.m., my job is to be fully alert and focused as I read the application carefully and decide whether to issue the warrant.

When I think about “probable cause,” I need to address several questions. Is the information presented in the warrant fresh or is it stale? (People shouldn’t have their garage searched because they were seen stealing a car in the vicinity 10 years ago.) Have the police described specifically what they are looking for that is evidence of the crime? (“Stolen stuff” will not be good enough.) Is there a good reason to think that the items to be seized are actually going to be in the place to be searched? (Someone wouldn’t hide a stolen car in a filing cabinet.) If there are confidential informants involved, are they reliable? (a car thief with 10 perjury convictions might not be a reliable informant.)

Before I grant a search warrant, I am ever mindful that I am not a “rubber stamp” for law-enforcement officers. They have a very important job to do, but I have a different role that is equally important as a check on the police function of government’s executive branch. My task as the reviewing judge is “gatekeeper,” and I must exercise my judgment independently so that the people’s rights are recognized. As our founding fathers understood so well, gatekeepers will always be necessary to keep “democracy” from turning into “tyranny.”

Judge Gamon is a district court judge in Judicial District 8A. She serves 10 counties, with her home chambers in Ottumwa. She is thankful that most of the search warrants she currently reviews come during the daytime. She may be reached at lucy.gamon@iowacourts.gov.