Supreme Court finds prosecutor’s signature unnecessary


The Supreme Court issued its order granting a petition for writ of mandamus in In re Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, 2022 MP 5.

The petition concerned criminal complaints filed after warrantless arrests. They are called Rule 5 complaints because NMI Rule of Criminal Procedure 5 requires that when police make a warrantless arrest, a complaint showing probable cause for the arrest must be filed.

In this case, a man was arrested without a warrant on suspicion of domestic violence. After the arrest, a police officer wrote a Rule 5 complaint and supporting affidavit. The officer got a prosecutor to electronically sign the complaint indicating that they reviewed it. The officer then appeared before a judge and swore to the affidavit’s truthfulness. The Superior Court ended up rejecting the complaint and dismissing the case without prejudice due to the nature of the prosecutor’s signature. Specifically, instead of filing the document through the judiciary’s e-filing system, the prosecutor signed it by inserting an image of his physical signature. The Superior Court indicated that this type of signature could not be trusted.

Following the dismissal, the Commonwealth filed its petition, which asked the Supreme Court to order the Superior Court to accept Rule 5 complaints filed by police officers which have the type of electronic signature by the prosecutor used in the dismissed complaint.

Article I, Section 3 of the NMI Constitution and the Fourth Amendment require that warrants be issued “upon probable cause supported by oath or affirmation.” While warrantless arrests are sometimes allowed, the government still has to show probable cause, and Rule 5’s purpose is to fulfill that requirement.

The Supreme Court granted the Commonwealth’s petition because it found that a prosecutor’s signature is not necessary on a Rule 5 complaint. The constitutional mandate of probable cause for an arrest is satisfied when a judge hears evidence presented to them under oath which they find sufficient. A signature by a prosecutor, physical or electronic, is not needed to find probable cause. Therefore, the Superior Court cannot reject a Rule 5 complaint submitted by a police officer because a prosecutor’s signature is in a certain electronic format. Concerns about the genuineness of a particular signature need to be based on evidence.

The Court’s full opinion is available at https://cnmilaw.org/pdf/supreme/2022-MP-05.pdf. (PR)

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