Establishing Probable Cause for a Warrant – Aguilar and Gates cases

This paper outlines the differences between the Aguilar and Gates cases in terms of the requirements used by the Supreme Court to establish probable cause for a warrant.

Establishing Probable cause for a Warrant

In Aguilar v. Texas, the United States Supreme Court ruled that although “an affidavit supporting a search warrant may be based on hearsay information and need not reflect the direct personal observations of the affiant, the magistrate must be informed of some of the underlying circumstances relied on by the person providing the information and some of the underlying circumstances from which the affiant concluded that the informant, whose identity was not disclosed, was credible or his information reliable” (Smith and Todd, 2015). Aguilar v. Texas (1964) and Spinelli v. United States (1969) led to the Aguilar–Spinelli test that determined whether a search warrantor a warrantless arrest were valid based on the reliability or credibility of an informant or anonymous tip. Federally, the Aguilar-Spinelli test held until 1983 when it was replaced by Illinois v. Gates.

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The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution secures persons against unreasonable searches and seizures. This is based on the exclusionary rule established federally after Weeks v. United States (1914) and stately after Mapp v. Ohio (1961) that nullifies as admissible evidence obtained in an illegal search or seizure. These rulings failed to establish concrete legal guidelines to establish validity of a search warrant or warrantless arrest. Hence the Fourth Amendment requires that a law officer, through evidence or an affidavit, swear or affirms before a judge or magistrate that they have probable cause to believe a crime was committed or will be committed(Tomkovicz, 2013).
The US Supreme Court ruled in Aguilar v. Texas that some creditable person or reliable information must be part of the underlying circumstances contributing to the affiant’s conclusions. Further, according to Spinelli v. United States, the magistrate must be informed of the underlying circumstances leading to the informant’s conclusions. If the law officer cannot establish both prongs of the test prior to trial, the magistrate or judge can dismiss the case for lacking probable cause for a warrantless arrest(Smith and Todd, 2015).

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However, the Supreme Court dropped this two-pronged rule in favor of the totality of the circumstances rule that evaluates the reliability of the information following Illinois v. Gates (1983) (Smith and Todd, 2015). Following an anonymous tip to the police that Sue and Lance Gates were trafficking drugs, Detective Mader followed up on the tip by monitoring the couple in association with DEA. The couple’s suspicious activities made the detective obtain a search warrant from DuPont County Court based on the anonymous tip and his affidavit. He recovered marijuana and weapons in the couple’s car and at their home.

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However, the Illinois Circuit Court, the Illinois Appellate Courts and the Supreme Court of Illinois ruled that the search was unlawful since it did not provide enough evidence based on the Spinelli v. United States ruling, leading to exclusion of the evidence obtained on the basis of the warrant. The state, supported by several amici curiae, brought the case to the US Supreme Court to determine whether a judge may issue a search warrant based on partially corroborated anonymous informant’s tip. The Supreme Court overturned the earlier rulings delivering the decision in favor of the State of Illinois by ruling that the “reliability”, “veracity” and “basis of knowledge” of an informant are intertwined and may usefully illuminate the common sense of probable cause(Tomkovicz, 2013). This was in recognition of the fact that there was more evidence than the anonymous letter that the Gateses were involved in drug trafficking. Abandoning the Aguilar-Spinelli test, Illinois v. Gates was a landmark ruling in probable cause and search warrants. Two judges dissented with the ruling arguing that the Aguilar-Spinelli test protected the citizen’s rights more.

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States can choose whether to use the Aguilar-Spinelli rationale that provides more rights for citizens or to use the Gates rationale captured in the federal constitution. States that favor Aguilar over Gates in their constitutions include Alaska, Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington (Smith and Todd, 2015).

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