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Illinois v Gates - What It Did and What It Did Not Do

NCJ Number
Criminal Law Bulletin Volume: 20 Issue: 2 Dated: (March/April 1984) Pages: 93-123
C E Moylan
Date Published
31 pages
This essay examines the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Illinois v. Gates with respect to previous decisions bearing upon standards for issuing search-and-seizure warrants based on probable cause.
In the Gates case, the Illinois police brought charges against a husband and wife for drug trafficking, with evidence having been obtained from a search and seizure based upon a warrant issued from a probable-cause ruling derived largely from an anonymous letter that implicated the couple in drug trafficking. Although the police corroborated facts stated in the letter, none of the facts corroborated necessarily implied criminal activity. For this reason, the trial judge suppressed the evidence, and this ruling was upheld by the Illinois Court of Appeals and the Illinois Supreme Court before being reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In its holding, the Court majority dismantled the entire Aguilar-Spinelli framework of analysis for determining probable cause in issuing warrants stemming from informant information. In its decision, the Court indicated preference for warrants issued under the terms of U.S. v. Ventresca. The point is made that warrants should not be judged hypertechnically, because resort to the warrant process should be encouraged rather than discouraged. The majority opinion concludes: 'It is enough that there was a fair probability that the writer of the anonymous letter had obtained his entire story either from the Gates or someone they trusted.' This statement leads to the conclusion that the determination of probable cause in a warrant decision should be paid great deference by reviewing courts and that the reviewing court should not go beyond determining that the issuing magistrate had a substantial basis for concluding that a search would uncover evidence of a crime. Illinois v. Gates does little to aid those who search for precise standards for determining probable cause in the warrant decision. It further failed to use the opportunity to make a major statement on the utility of the exclusionary rule.