Idaho Supreme Court on Warrantless Misdemeanor Arrests

By Jessica A.H. Howell

A case out of the Idaho Supreme Court is making headlines around the state for a significant change in criminal procedure.[i]  On June 12, 2019, the Court issued State v. Clarke, Docket No. 45062, unanimously holding that the Idaho Constitution prohibits warrantless arrests for misdemeanor offenses committed outside an officer’s presence.[ii]  This opinion, written by Justice Horton, has victim’s rights advocacy groups, law enforcement, and prosecutors scrambling for solutions regarding the requirement that there be a warrant for such offenses, while defense attorneys are up against deadlines to file motions to suppress evidence obtained as a result of these now illegal arrests.

Case Background

In State v. Clarke, a woman flagged down a police officer near a beach in Hayden, Idaho.[iii]  She reported that Mr. Clarke harassed her and groped her while she was trying to enjoy the beach with her son.[iv]  She provided the officer with a description of Mr. Clarke and advised that she wanted to press charges.[v]

The officer located Mr. Clarke, who admitted to talking to the woman and grabbing her, but Mr. Clarke maintained the touching was consensual.[vi]  Based on the woman’s complaint and Mr. Clarke’s admission that he touched her, the officer arrested Mr. Clarke for battery—a misdemeanor offense.[vii]  The officer searched Mr. Clarke incident to arrest and discovered drug paraphernalia, methamphetamine, and marijuana.[viii]

A Motion to Suppress

Mr. Clarke moved to suppress the evidence obtained after his arrest, arguing that the arrest was illegal pursuant to Article I, Section 17 of the Idaho Constitution—which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures—and therefore the evidence of the drugs and paraphernalia was “fruit of the poisonous tree.”[ix]  The district court found the arrest permissible under both the Idaho and Federal Constitutions and under Idaho Code § 19-603(6)—which permits warrantless arrests when there is probable cause to believe an assault or battery has occurred—and found there was probable cause to support the arrest.[x]  Mr. Clarke appealed the district court’s ruling.[xi]

On Appeal

The Idaho Supreme Court analyzed Idaho Code § 19-603, which sets forth the bases upon which an arrest may be made.[xii]  Until 1979, that statute echoed the state constitutional interpretation that a warrantless arrest was lawful if the arresting officer had probable cause to believe a felony was committed or if the offender had committed a misdemeanor in an officer’s presence.[xiii]  But in 1979, Subsection 6 was added to the statute and since then, the statutory standard has diverged from the constitutional standard.[xiv]  Indeed, Subsection 6 allowed for warrantless arrests when there was probable cause to believe a misdemeanor assault or battery occurred outside the presence of an officer.[xv]

As a first step in interpreting the state constitution, the Court looked to the intent of the framers.[xvi]  This was unhelpful, since Article I, Section 17 was adopted without debate.[xvii]  The Court then reviewed common law, analyzing English texts dating back to 1765 and common law as it developed throughout the United States.[xviii]  This historic review revealed the long-standing principle that peace officers were not permitted to make warrantless arrests for any misdemeanor offense committed outside their presence.[xix]  Thus, the Court concluded, “that the framers of the Idaho Constitution understood that Article I, Section 17 prohibited warrantless arrests for completed misdemeanors.”[xx]  Accordingly, the Court vacated Mr. Clarke’s judgment of conviction.

Perhaps as a signal to the legislature, the Court recognized the significance of its holding: “‘Domestic violence is a serious crime that causes substantial damage to victims and children, as well as to the community.’ I.C § 32-1408(1).  Idaho Code § 19-603(6) permits peace officers to use their arrest powers to intervene in domestic violence situations, even though they have not personally observed the commission of a crime, and to thereby defuse potentially violent circumstances.  Nevertheless, the extremely powerful policy considerations which support upholding Idaho Code § 19-603(6) must yield to the requirements of the Idaho Constitution.”[xxi]

Far-Reaching Implications

While Clarke was analyzed within the context of a battery offense, the reasoning behind the Court’s conclusion indicates that any completed misdemeanor offense requires a warrant if committed outside the presence of an officer.  For instance, if a civilian witness calls in a DUI suspect based on a driving pattern, and law enforcement locate the suspect’s empty car parked in front of the suspect’s home, that misdemeanor offense is completed and law enforcement is required to obtain a warrant before making an arrest.  If a warrantless arrest is made, any evidence obtained as a result of that arrest, such as breathalyzer blows or a blood draw, is subject to suppression.

Prosecutors worry this new holding will prevent law enforcement from being able to remove an accused offender from his or her home in order to protect the alleged victim.  Defense attorneys, on the other hand, are concerned that law enforcement will simply charge offenses as felonies for the mere sake of being able to effectuate an arrest—knowing full well that these offenses will likely be pled down to misdemeanors.  The holding may also necessitate more magistrates to be on call to issue warrants.

Only time will reveal the practical implications of the Clarke holding.  Notably, 38 other states and the District of Columbia follow the same principle, and the principle is rooted in both English and American common law.[xxii]  While this change in criminal procedure is new to Idaho, it is not new to American jurisprudence.

Jessica A.H. Howell is an Ada County Public Defender. She is a University of Idaho College of Law alum and studied English and Philosophy at the University of San Diego. Outside of work, she enjoys volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters, traveling off the beaten path, eating too much Thai food, and spending time with her baby daughter.

[i] See, e.g., “Idaho Supreme Court: Officer didn’t see misdemeanor? Arrest not OK,” by AP and CBS 2 News, June 13, 2019,

[ii] State v. Clarke, Docket No. 45062 (June 12, 2019).

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi]  Id.

[vii] State v. Clarke, Docket No. 45062 (June 12, 2019).

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] State v. Clarke, Docket No. 45062 (June 12, 2019).

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv]  Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] State v. Clarke, Docket No. 45062 (June 12, 2019).

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Justin Rhodes, Common Law, Common Sense? How Federal Circuit Courts Have Misapplied the Fourth Amendment and Why Officers Must be Present to Make a Warrantless Arrest for a Misdemeanor Offense, 53 No. 4 Crim. Law Bull. art. 1, 18 (2017).