Understanding Search Warrants

Many criminal cases rely almost entirely on evidence obtained during a search. If the police performed the search under a warrant, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution applies and requires that police officers meet specific criteria before they can lawfully perform a search.

If police fail to follow the proper procedure, the search and seizure is invalid, and evidence obtained should not be considered at trial.

To obtain a search warrant, the police must prove to a judge that there is probable cause to believe someone committed a crime or that they will find evidence of criminal activity.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a search warrant is required whenever a person has a “legitimate expectation of privacy” in the thing or place to be searched. The Court adopted a two-part test to determine whether a person has a legitimate expectation of privacy.

  1. Was there a subjective expectation that the place being searched would be private?
  2. Was this expectation of privacy objectively reasonable?

The judge will evaluate the totality of the circumstances and the likelihood of finding evidence during the search. If there is not enough evidence to support the request for a search warrant, the judge should deny the request.

When police perform a search under an invalid warrant or without a warrant, they violate the defendant’s rights. At trial, the judge or jury should not consider evidence obtained in an illegal search.

What Makes a Search Warrant Invalid?

If the police do not comply with the search warrant requirements, the warrant is invalid. A search warrant can be invalid for many reasons.

Incomplete Information in the Affidavit

When the police apply for a search warrant, they must submit an affidavit that includes all the information that shows someone committed a crime. The judge should not consider Information that is not in the affidavit; the police cannot request a search warrant based on evidence told to the judge verbally.

When completing the affidavit, the police officer must swear under oath that the information in the affidavit is accurate to the best of their knowledge. If the officer lied about the information in the affidavit, our criminal defense team can challenge the validity of the warrant.

Illegal Evidence

A search warrant based on illegally obtained evidence is invalid. For example, police cannot trespass on your property, then use the evidence they obtained to request a search warrant. Similarly, they cannot illegally eavesdrop on a conversation and then use information learned in that conversation to obtain a search warrant.

Evidence Is Not Recent

The police must act quickly to obtain a search warrant. For example, suppose that in June, the police learned from a confidential informant that you were selling cocaine. If they wait until December to apply for a warrant to search your house, the warrant should not be granted because of the length of time between when the police learned of the illegal activity and when they applied for the search warrant.

Unreliable Sources of Evidence

Statements in support of a search warrant often come from anonymous sources, sometimes called confidential informants. Even though these sources are often not identified, the judge must still verify that the source is reliable before issuing the warrant.

To verify the reliability of the source, the police must present corroborating information from the informant’s personal knowledge, such as something that they saw, heard, or did. A judge cannot issue a warrant based on someone who heard from someone else that another person had committed a crime.

Challenging an Invalid Search Warrant

If police illegally obtained evidence, our criminal defense team will work to have the evidence excluded from trial. We will file a Motion to Suppress Evidence asking the court to find that the evidence was illegally obtained and cannot be considered at trial. If we are successful, the prosecutor cannot use the evidence to try to prove you guilty.

Many people believe that once evidence is successfully excluded, their case will be dismissed. This is not quite accurate. Even though the specific evidence that was excluded cannot be considered, the prosecutor can still try to prove you guilty using other evidence. However, without the illegally obtained evidence, it is often more difficult to prove a defendant guilty, and the prosecutor will be more likely to agree to a favorable plea bargain.

What To Do If Police Want to Search Your Home, Vehicle, or Property?

If police ask to perform a search but do not have a warrant, do your best to be polite and stay calm. Keep your hands in plain sight at all times. If you need to reach in your pocket, go back into the house, or reach somewhere in your vehicle, tell the police what you are going to do, and move slowly.

Otherwise, say as little as possible and tell the police that you do not consent to a police search. Explain that you are invoking your right to remain silent and that you wish to speak with a lawyer.

Just Criminal Law Protects Your One Shot at Justice

Just Criminal Law is based in Gillette, Wyoming, and proudly represents people in Eastern Wyoming and Western South Dakota. If you are facing criminal charges based on evidence you believe was illegally obtained, we can help. Our lawyers are former prosecutors who have extensive experience dealing with search warrants. Today, we use that experience to defend people who have been accused of committing crimes.

We have a demonstrated record of success and will aggressively defend you against criminal charges.

To learn more about our services, contact us today to schedule your personalized case review and strategy session.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is offered for educational purposes only. This information is not offered as legal advice. A person accused of a crime should always consult with an attorney before making decisions that have legal consequences.