Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart observed that "[t]he art of being a judge, if there is such an art, is in announcing clear rules in the context of ... infinitely varied cases, rules that can be understood and observed by conscientious government officials." (2) This might be excellent advice for Missouri's judges to consider. After nearly fifteen years of struggling to formulate the proper standard for appellate review of a trial court's finding of probable cause, courts appear to be as unsettled on the issue as ever.
In no context is this clearer than in cases involving charges of driving while intoxicated (DWI). Two contradictory lines of cases have emerged in DWI cases in Missouri, and decisions of the Supreme Court of Missouri issued within a year of each other provide good examples of each line, perhaps demonstrating the level of confusion that overshadows the issue. One line holds that appellate courts should review de novo a finding of probable cause based on uncontroverted evidence. (3) These courts assert that, because no facts are in dispute, the only remaining issue is one of law and, thus, there is no need for deference. (4) The other line holds to a deferential standard--that the appellate court should view the evidence, even if uncontroverted, in the light most favorable to the trial court's ruling. (5) These courts hold to the proposition that search and seizure issues often involved mixed questions of law and fact, and the appellate court "must give due regard to the trial court's opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses in determining whether the trial court's findings are supported by substantial evidence." (6)
The Supreme Court of Missouri's latest opinion on the issue, York v. Director of Revenue, has significantly added to the confusion by not only contradicting the standard enunciated in its own decision issued just four years earlier, but also by making the pronouncement unceremoniously, without explanation, and without acknowledging that it was even aware that it was declaring a changed standard. (7) And, perhaps of equal significance, the court has exacerbated the confusion by apparently rejecting the United States Supreme Court's holding that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires de novo review of probable cause rulings. (8) This rebuff is significant because, since 1985, Missouri's courts have deemed the interests protected by Missouri's constitutional guarantees of reasonable governmental searches and seizures (9) to be identical to the interests protected by the United States Constitution's Fourth Amendment. (10) Missouri has explicitly acknowledged that this recognition applies to the standard of review in cases to determine if there is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. (11) As a consequence, Missouri courts have obligated themselves to defer to the United States Supreme Court's holdings concerning all search and seizure issues, including what constitutes probable cause. (12) Missouri courts deem requirements of "probable cause" DWI cases to be virtually identical to the use of "probable cause" in search and seizure cases. (13) The sudden rejection by Missouri's Supreme Court of the United States Supreme Court's holding--a holding that the Missouri court cited with approval just two years previously (14)--therefore necessarily suggests that Missouri's courts may no longer deem its state's constitutional guarantees to be identical to those protected by the Fourth Amendment. If so--and there does not appear to be any other logical explanation for the rebuff--the change is drastic, especially in light of its occurring without even an explanation.
Whether the change results from mistake or was by design is not clear. The problem created by the Supreme Court of Missouri in York is not that its announced rule lacked clarity. The rule, as articulated by the court, was simple enough. The problem lies not in the court's ability to articulate a rule, but in the manner in which it unveiled the rule: unceremoniously and without any apparent acknowledgement that it was contradicting precedent. …