Georgia Supreme Court considers alleged improper search warrant

In a matter that has been described as potentially being “the first of its kind in any state’s court,” the Georgia Supreme Court is hearing arguments concerning a novel search warrant application in a drug crimes case.

Specifically, the Court is considering whether a grant to Athens police officers that enabled them to use thermal imaging on a drug suspect’s garage was proper.

The police officers and prosecution, unsurprisingly, say it was and that it provided them with the probable cause needed to obtain a second search warrant to enter and inspect the suspect’s home.

The man’s legal defense team counters that the warrant was illegal under state law and that the resulting grainy video filmed by police officer constitutes illegally obtained evidence. As such, the defense argues that probable cause never existed and that the criminal charge of manufacturing illegal drugs should be dismissed.

The core focus of the Court is on Georgia statutory language, which mandates that search warrants can be granted only to uncover “tangible evidence.”

And that, the defense contends, it precisely what is lacking in the state’s images showing heat given off in the garage at which the camera was aimed. The prosecution states that the images support a likely conclusion that energy consumption was used for “grow lights” to cultivate marijuana. The defense says that the prosecution’s belief is irrelevant, because the search warrant was flatly improper.

That view was seemingly agreed with by a former federal prosecutor, who said that, “I don’t know why you’d ever get a warrant just for thermal imaging.”

A second issue concerns the two-day delay by the police in delivering the warrant to the suspect. The prosecution says that it was purely an oversight and not an act of bad faith by the officers.

One Supreme Court justice, however, strongly questioned that explanation.

“I’ll just tell you it doesn’t look good,” he said.

A trial is pending based on the Court’s ruling, which is expected to be announced within the next several months.

Source: The Augusta Chronicle, “Ga. justices hear case that thermal imaging used illegally,” Walter C. Jones, June 11, 2012