Court commissioners don't have the authority to issue search warrants, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Overruling the Utah Court of Appeals, the state's highest court said search warrants are a "core judicial function," which only judges may perform.The issue was raised by Richard Dee Thomas, who was convicted three years ago in the June 30, 1993, armed robbery of a Salt Lake County fast-food restaurant.
Some of the evidence linking Thomas to the crime was obtained from his apartment through a search warrant issued by 3rd District Court Commissioner Frances M. Palacios.
Thomas moved to have the evidence suppressed, arguing the search was illegal because the court commissioner lacked the authority to issue the warrant. Third District Judge William B. Bohling denied the motion.
On appeal, Thomas cited the 1994 Utah Supreme Court ruling in the case of Salt Lake City vs. Ohms. In that instance justices held that court commissioners cannot exercise judicial powers or perform core judicial functions, such as entering a final judgment and imposing sentence.
However, the Utah Court of Appeals rejected Thomas' argument, saying the Ohms ruling did not apply to the issuance of search warrants.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the court, Justice Leonard Russon said court commissioners are employees of the judiciary, not judges. Commissioners may conduct fact-finding hearings, pretrial conferences, make recommendations to judges and perform other functions that are reviewable by a judge, but they may not exercise judicial powers, Russon said.
"When a judge issues to law enforcement an order to search and seize, the judge simultaneously exercises the power and authority to enforce such an order, because once armed with an issued search warrant, law enforcement proceeds to search and seize at will," Russon said.
That makes the issuance of a search warrant a core judicial function, "which commissioners lack the authority to perform," he said.
Russon said the court's holding "is buttressed by the fact that the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures embodied in the Utah and United States Constitutions is one of the most fundamental and cherished rights we possess."
The ruling will not, however, affect past cases. The justices said their decision is "prospective."