Judge disallows evidence offered in murder case

Search warrant too broad, attorney for PB man argues

PINE BLUFF -- Prosecutors suffered a setback Tuesday in the murder trial of Tony Warren when Circuit Judge Alex Guynn tossed out a key piece of evidence.

Warren, 21, of Pine Bluff, was charged on April 12, 2019, in the April 8 shooting death of Clifton McDowell, 24, at the intersection of Iris Street and Howard Drive in Pine Bluff.

Warren was initially arrested on drug and firearm charges in a traffic stop April 9 in Pine Bluff, during which police recovered 21 grams of marijuana, a Springfield XP45 semi-automatic handgun, a box of .45 ACP ammunition, digital scales and a cellphone.

He is scheduled for a jury trial in Jefferson County Circuit Court on Jan. 22, beginning at 8:30 a.m., with Guynn presiding.

During a suppression hearing in Guynn's courtroom Tuesday, Warren's attorney, Megan Wilson-Lowman of the James Law Firm in Little Rock, argued successfully to suppress evidence taken from the cellphone, contending that the search warrant police used to obtain incriminating information from the phone was too broadly written.

She contended that the search warrant for the cellphone made it appear that police were searching for information on drug activity when, in reality, they were searching for information relating to the shooting death of McDowell.

On the witness stand Tuesday, Pine Bluff Detective Christopher Sweeny testified that on the afternoon of April 9, he and another officer stopped a burgundy Chrysler 200 that matched the description of the vehicle used in the shooting for a traffic violation while they were out on patrol in the area of 13th Avenue and Linden Street.

Sweeny testified that he and the other officer smelled the odor of marijuana coming from the car, and during a search found a backpack containing the marijuana and ammunition on the passenger side floorboard and the handgun underneath the passenger seat.

Initially, Warren told detectives that he was in Little Rock at the time of the shooting, staying at a motel with a cousin, according to a probable cause affidavit. According to the affidavit, during a search of the cellphone, police found text messages indicating that he was in Pine Bluff on Howard Drive five minutes before the shooting.

Wilson-Lowman argued that the search warrant used by police to obtain evidence from the cellphone was misleading in that the wording made it appear that detectives were searching for evidence of drug activity when, she said, they had already developed Warren as a suspect in the McDowell death.

She said the amount of marijuana found in the car -- 21 grams, seven grams short of one ounce -- would be more consistent with an amount possessed for personal use than an amount a drug dealer would have for distribution.

"Why did you want to search the cellphone?" Wilson-Lowman asked Sweeny.

"For the amount of weed that he had on him," Sweeny replied. "I know that drug dealers normally keep information on their phones with drug details, and also for further investigation of other crimes, which was the homicide that the suspect was possibly involved in."

"Did you put in your affidavit that you were wanting to search the phone in relation to the homicide?" Wilson-Lowman asked.

"For other crimes," Sweeny said. "Mainly for the drug activity, but they also had it for other crimes also."

"But you don't ever specify a homicide," Wilson-Lowman said.

"Other crimes," Sweeny replied.

"But you don't ever list in the affidavit that Mr. Warren was a suspect in a homicide, do you?" she asked.

"No," Sweeny said.

In his ruling, Guynn agreed that the search warrant was overly broad and that the search of the phone did not turn up any evidence that was cited in the search warrant.

"It's the court's view that there was no connection to the cellphone and drug transactions or anything that I can ascertain that Mr. Warren was a drug dealer," Guynn said in his ruling to suppress the evidence obtained from the cellphone.

Jay Gerard, a prosecutor with the office of Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter, said the exclusion of the cellphone evidence was a setback to the state's case against Warren, but he said the ruling had no effect on other evidence prosecutors have.

Deputy Prosecutor Wayne Juneau agreed, but he declined to speculate how much harm the ruling did to the prosecution's case.

"I don't want to say at this point because we have a trial coming up on the 22nd," Juneau said. "We still have evidence in this case."

If Guynn's ruling is appealed, it would result in a delay of the trial, prosecutors said, but in comments made after the ruling, Hunter indicated that such an appeal is unlikely.

"We have other evidence that we believe is sufficient for a conviction," he said. "We plan to take this case to trial on the 22nd."

If convicted, Warren could spend the rest of his life in prison.

State Desk on 01/08/2020