I-Team: Do police seek search warrant friendly judges? - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Do police seek search warrant friendly judges?

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LAS VEGAS -- Could police be playing favorites when it comes to getting search warrants signed by local magistrates? An I-Team investigation shows one judge has signed nearly twice as many warrants this year, as any other judge.

The Fourth Amendment prevents police from entering your home or seizing your property without obtaining a warrant signed by an impartial magistrate.

But one expert the I-Team spoke with questions whether judges with strong ties to law enforcement can truly be impartial. Why do certain judges sign lots of warrants for police, while other sign hardly any.

Law enforcement officers went to Las Vegas Justice Court for search warrants more than 2,000 times last year. Each warrant has to be signed by a judge whose job it is to impartially review the facts before approving it. But can a judge who's married to a police officer be impartial when signing warrants for that officer's department?

“A judge has to be neutral and detached and somebody who is married to a police office is not neutral and detached. Period,” said John Wesley Hall, a Fourth Amendment expert.

Hall is a lawyer who runs a Fourth Amendment blog and wrote reference books on search and seizure law. He is referring to Judge Melanie Andress-Tobiasson who is married to a career Metro officer who retired last summer. When the I-Team asked Las Vegas Justice Court for numbers on how many warrants were signed by each magistrate Andress-Tobiasson’s name was at the top of the list.

She signed the greatest number of warrants by a margin of nearly 2 to 1 over the judge with the next highest figure.

I-Team reporter Glen Meek: “Do you think the fact that your husband was a career Metro officer tends to prompt police to call you more often for a search warrant?

Tobiasson: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not. And I can tell you, though he's retired now … probably most of the officers on the department don't even know my husband.

If police seek certain judges for warrants and not others it can create the appearance of judge shopping. It's not illegal, but it can make the process seem unfair and begs the question of why police should favor some judges over others.

“It should go in rotation and not be judge shopping because that's what it looks like,” Hall said.

There is a rotation system in LasVegas Justice Court. Each week one of the 14 judges is given signing duty. If they can't be reached, the duty goes to the chief judge and then to the vice chief.

Andress-Tobiasson has signed more warrants in the first three months of this year than the chief judge and vice chief combined.

“I can't give you a definitive explanation, but I would suspect it has more to do with Judge Tobiasson being more accessible than perhaps some of the rest of us on the bench,” said Judge Karen Bennet-Heron, chief judge of the justice court.

“I will make myself available even if it's not my week. There have been times when they've been in the courthouse and couldn't find a judge and I will drive down to do their search warrant. It's a matter of making myself available. Is it right or is it wrong? I don't think you can really say that. I think it's my job and I don't have a problem doing it if I'm available to do it,” Andress-Tobiasson said.

She goes on to explain why she signed more than twice as many as the next judge with the highest figure.

“I can't tell you that. I mean, is it because I answer the phone? I don't know. I really can't account for all of that. I can tell you that when I'm signing judge, I answer the phone whenever it rings,” she said.

A number of judges told the I-Team that accessibility is one reason why a particular judge might sign more warrants than another. But it is also clear that some police officers seek out certain judges when they want a warrant signed.

In a radio ad for district court Judge Michael Villani, which was produced before his judicial opponent was disqualified, a Metro vice sergeant says Villani is the judge he calls if he needs a warrant at all hours.

“We know we can count on Judge Villani, no matter what time of night, to help us do our job and get criminals off the street,” Metro Sgt. Don Hoier said.

Judge Villani said the ad demonstrates his availability, but does not suggest he acts as rubber stamp for police seeking warrants. Villani is in the middle of the pack in district court when it comes to signing search warrants. At the top of the list is Nancy Alf who signed 238 warrants over the past 15 months.

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