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Search Warrants Laws in California

Posted by Alan Eisner | Jun 13, 2018

Search Warrants Laws in California
A search warrant gives police the authority to search your home, car, business, or anywhere they suspect has evidence of unlawful activity.

Most people have a basic understanding of California search warrants, but don't typically know all the legal requirements, probable cause, and how a search warrant is issued. A search warrant gives police the legal authority to search your home, car, business, or any other area they suspect has evidence of unlawful activity.

If police are able to find what they are searching for, it also gives them the power to seize the evidence. However, it's important to understand there are restrictions on how and when police can execute a search warrant, such as the knock and announce rule. If they violate any of these restrictions, it could result in your criminal charges being reduced or even dismissed.

Therefore, it's critical to understand the rules that regulate all California search warrants and legal defenses.

In basic terms, police will request a search warrant from the Los Angeles County criminal court in an attempt to persuade a judge or magistrate to issue the warrant.

They must be able to provide the court with “probable cause”. This means they have sufficient reason to believe that evidence related to a crime, or an individual who allegedly committed a crime, is at the location they are requesting to search.

In order for a search warrant to be valid, it must specifically describe the:

  • place to be searched, and
  • the person, or
  • items that will be seized, if located.

In other words, search warrants are legally required to be very specific. Police can't exceed the permissions given by the court when the judge authorized the search warrant.

It's very important to stop and note here there is an exception to this rule. If there are unlawful items that in “plain view” during the authorized search, these items can be seized.

For example, if police enter your house with an authorized search warrant to look for your brother, who has an active arrest warrant, and they see in plain view some methamphetamine on the kitchen table, they can legally seize it and use the unlawful drugs against you or your brother.

If you have been the target of a search warrant in Los Angeles County, you need to know your legal rights and understand that any lawfully seized evidence can be used against you in a criminal offense.

Contact the Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers at Eisner Gorin LLP to review your situation and to discuss potential legal options.

If the search was unlawful, our attorneys can file a motion to suppress evidence under California Penal Code Section 1538.5.

If the motion is successful, the seized evidence can't be used against you in court. It's important to note the police don't need a search warrant if you are on felony probation or parole.

Why? Because as a condition of you being on probation or parole, you have forfeited your legal right to be free from otherwise unlawful searches and seizures.

Now that we have covered a general overview of California search warrants, let's take a closer review at the specific legal rules that apply to search warrants below. 

How is a Search Warrant Issued?

A judge will issue and sign a search warrant on behalf of the state of California, but it's represented by the Los Angeles County District Attorneys Office and actually executed by law enforcement pursuant to California Penal Code Section 1523.

However, before a judge will sign a warrant, there are a few major requirements that have to be addressed.

The prosecutor and police must reasonably convince the judge that a crime has been committed, AND there is evidence of the crime that can be likely found at the location that has been described in application for the search warrant. If a successful argument is presented with facts, typically a judge will sign and issue the search warrant.

The main reason for the legal requirement of having judges issue search warrants instead of a Los Angeles County prosecutor or law enforcement is to make sure a neutral person can review the facts and circumstances before making a decision to issue the warrant.

As stated above, if you have been served with a search warrant, or were searched without one, you need to immediately contact our Los Angeles criminal defense law firm. We will review your case to make sure your legal rights were not violated. 

California Search Warrant Requirements 

By law, there are specific requirements for obtaining California search warrants. These requirements are commonly called “grounds” for issuing a search warrant. There are a wide range of factors that will justify a judge issuing a search warrant. These include the following:

  • When the property was stolen;
  • When the property is evidence that a felony crime occurred or a specific person committed a felony crime;
  • When the property is in possession of a person who has intent to use it to commit a crime or in possession of another person who had it delivered to be concealed;
  • When the property reveals child pornography;
  • When there is an active arrest warrant for someone;
  • When a gun or deadly weapon was used at a crime scene;
  • When a mentally ill person is detained for possessing a firearm.

It's important to note that attorneys, doctors, psychologists and clergy are considered exempt from searches of their professional records unless they are suspected of engaging in unlawful activity themselves. Police detectives are legally required to show probable cause when they are applying to a judge for a search warrant.

What is Probable Cause?

What exactly is “probable cause” in California? It's the standard of proof by which an officer of the law has sufficient grounds to arrest someone, conduct a property or personal search, or to obtain a warrant for arrest.

Probable cause is a legal term from the 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees the right of all people from unreasonable searches and seizures.

This means that before a Los Angeles County judge will sign and issue a search warrant, they must have a reasonable belief the individual or property listed on the warrant application will likely be found at the location to be searched.

Therefore, before making a decision that probable cause exists, the judge could ask under oath questions to the prosecutor, police officer, and detective who applied for the warrant, as well as any witnesses that were used as reliable information that determined the search warrant was necessary.

This includes the use of informants, whom police routinely use for information in obtaining search warrants. The judge has to be provided some facts, not just an opinion, about allegations of unlawful activity.

It's important to note that a Los Angeles County judge is responsible for determining if sufficient probable cause exists in order to issue a search warrant. In situation where an application depends on information from an informant, they must be convinced the information is reliable. If you need additional information about probable cause, contact a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney at our law firm.  

Time of Execution of a California Search Warrant    

A search warrant has to be executed within 10 days of when it was issued. If the search warrant was not executed within this time frame, it is voided and expired. However, the judge could reissue the search warrant if they still believe sufficient probable cause exist.

The search warrant also has rules on the time of day when it can be executed. Typically, a search warrant has to be executed during “normal business hours,” whenever that is practical. This means the general rule is between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.

However, if the Los Angeles County judge determines there is “good cause,” they have the power to authorize service of the search warrant at any time of the day or night.

What is considered “good cause?”  It means there are facts to support a night time execution of the search warrant is justified based on the specific circumstances, but pubic safety is always a contributing factor in their decision.

A common example includes a situation where someone has numerous active arrest warrants. When a police officer executes a search warrant on someone's home or place of business, they have to knock on the door and inform them there is a search warrant. If entry is refused, the police are allowed to force entry in order to execute the warrant. This also applies to situations where nobody is home.

Seized Property

When police execute a search warrant and actually seize property, they are required to provide a receipt to the person it was taken from. The receipt has to include a detailed description of all the property taken.

In situation where there are no individuals there to give a receipt, they are required to leave it where they found the property, under California Penal Code 1535.

After the property has been seized, it must be kept in custody by the police officer to retain it until they are able to show it to the court who issued the search warrant. 

Motion to Suppress Evidence

Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers have been successful in challenging search warrants. The most common challenge is a motion to “suppress evidence” under California Penal Code Section 1538.5.

This type of legal challenge can be filed if you are seeking to recover seized evidence, or exclude seized evidence from being used in court. Our attorneys can file an “unreasonable search and seizure" motion based on the following information: 

  • The search warrant was insufficient on its face;
  • There was no probable cause to issue the search warrant;
  • The property or evidence that was seized was not described in the warrant;
  • The search warrant was executed illegally.

If we are successful in proving that any part of the search warrant was unlawful, then any evidence that was found during the search will normally be excluded.

This means the Los Angeles County prosecutor can't use the evidence against you and will typically lead to them to reduce or even dismiss the charges.  

Real Case Example of Motion to Suppress Evidence

The Los Angeles criminal defense law firm of Eisner Gorin LLP was able to get our client's case dismissed for an unlawful search after the court granted our motion to suppress evidence, under California Penal Code section 1538.5.

This case was represents a victory for the Fourth Amendment after a judge ruled that police officers had no legal justification to enter our client's car to search for his vehicle registration after he was stopped. The ruling meant that the firearm that was found inside his car could not be used against him, and the Los Angeles County prosecutor dismissed the case.

In this case, police stopped our client for alleged traffic violations. After they asked him for his driver's license, insurance and registration, they claimed he was acting suspicious by putting his hands in the pockets and would not show them the requested documents.

Therefore, they removed him from the vehicle where they claimed he was still acting suspicious, so they decided to handcuff him. The officers asked for consent to search his car for the registration, our client refused, but told them he could show them proof of registration on his cell phone. Police decided to enter his vehicle anyway, and while looked for the registration, they found a firearm in plain view.

The Los Angeles Superior court judge ruled that while the police had the legal right to enter our client's vehicle to search for registration to prove vehicle ownership, even after he refused to give consent, our client didn't fail to produce vehicle registration as police officers testified.

The judge said that in fact, our client told them the registration was on his cell phone, which was sufficient in our current electronic technology. The judge also noted it was significant that the police officers did not make any attempt to recover the registration from his cell phone before searching his vehicle.

The judge granted our motion to suppress evidence on the grounds police unlawfully searched his vehicle. The court then suppressed the firearm that was recovered in his vehicle and granted our motion to dismiss the case.

Contact Our Los Angeles Criminal Lawyers

If you have been subjected to a California search warrant, contact the Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys at Eisner Gorin LLP. We have over 60 years of combined experience and a track record of success.

The Fourth Amendment, which is the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, is critical in challenging search warrants.  

Our lawyers may be able to prove police unlawfully seized items during a search or detention and thus prevent the items from being used as evidence against you in a in criminal case. Contact our law firm at 877-781-1570.  Eisner Gorin LLP 1875 Century Park E #705 Los Angeles, CA 90067 310-328-3776

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About the Author

Alan Eisner

Alan Eisner  Van Nuys, California (818) 781-1570 (818) 788-5033 Email Me  Alan Eisner has practiced criminal law for over 28 years in Los Angeles County . Mr Eisner is a Certified Specialist in Criminal Law. (The California State Bar's Board of Legal Specialization has designated Mr. Eisner as a...

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