Review of the Federal Criminal Search and Seizure Laws and Defenses
According to the United States Constitution, the Fourth Amendment states that U.S. citizens have a right to be protected from unlawful searches and seizures of their persons, houses, papers, and effects.
The only way to search and seize these items without a warrant is with probable cause, which has been described by the United States Supreme Court describes as a fair probability evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.
When a federal law enforcement agency, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), believes you are engaging in criminal activity, they will seek a warrant to search your property, which can be executed at any time.
In order to get a federal warrant, however, they must present a written affidavit to a magistrate listing the reasons they believe you committed a crime and why they think evidence of this can be found on your property.
While federal laws allow agents a right to conduct a search of your home, there are limitations. The federal criminal justice system is complex and you need to make sure your constitutional rights are protected.
Sometimes, what you perceive to be an illegal search or seizure is a valid act. It's important to understand the specifics and the exceptions to the rule.
Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will review the laws below.
When are Search and Seizure Allowed?
Searches and seizures are considered illegal unless federal law enforcement has obtained a valid search warrant from a judge, or the search or seizure falls within an exception to the warrant requirement.
What are the exceptions to the warrant requirement?
The exceptions tend to vary based on the type of property law enforcement is attempting to search or seize.
For example, the exceptions that cover cellphones are different from those that apply to book bags or purses. Generally, though, the exceptions include:
- If the police have voluntary consent to search or seize the property;
- If an individual is lawfully arrested and the police are looking for a weapon that might be used against them, or
- The weapon is evidence in a crime and might be destroyed if not found right then;
- Searches that take place at international borders;
- Vehicle searches when law enforcement has probable cause to believe the vehicle contains pertinent evidence;
- Items that are in plain view of law enforcement and are obviously incriminating;
- Emergency situations where searches or seizures are necessary to prevent physical harm or property damage or to find a suspect that has fled the scene;
- Terry stops (stop and frisk) – when a criminal suspect is temporarily detained, an officer may look for weapons that might be used against them; and
- Situations where individuals have no reasonable probability of privacy.
Search and Seizure Laws
Every United States citizen has a right to privacy, but only when that expectation is reasonable.
For instance, you have legitimate expectations of privacy in your home, your electronic storage devices (phones, hard drives, computers, etc.), a hotel room, a tent, or in your personal property you bring to a public school.
But you don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the property you've abandoned, that resides in a stolen vehicle or property you have in a vehicle you do not own or possess.
As explained above, for law enforcement to search or seize property you do have a legitimate expectation of privacy in, they must get a search warrant from a judge first or fall within one of the expectations explained above.
Challenges to a Search or Seizure
There are some instances where an individual may be able to challenge the admission of evidence collected in a search or seizure that was conducted after obtaining a proper warrant.
To do so, the defendant must show the warrant itself was defective or invalid in some way, or the search went outside the scope of the warrant or produced evidence other than what the warrant described.
For example, a law enforcement officer obtains a warrant to search a defendant's home for drugs but does not find any, rather they find child pornography.
In this case, prosecutors cannot use the child pornography found to now build a case against the defendant for having it.
This is because the warrant specifically stated they were searching the home for drugs, and thus the child pornography evidence is outside the scope of the warrant.
It might be possible to challenge the legality of a search and seizure of a person or property, but there must be sufficient grounds for such claim.
While federal courts will consider all circumstances in order to establish probable cause for a federal warrant, there are several issues we can use to challenge the legality of the federal warrant, such as:
- Specific location that was to be searched,
- Specific items that were to be seized,
- Use of false statements or unreliable evidence to support affidavit,
- Credibility of the informant who gave information was poor,
- Legal issues with the execution or probable cause to obtain warrant.
There are a several ways to challenge federal warrant, such as agents seizing items that were not specifically listed, which could be suppressed later in court.
We might also be able to challenge the probable cause provided to the magistrate when requesting the warrant. If successful, all seized items would be inadmissible in court.
How Might a Search Warrant Be Invalid?
In some instances, a defendant may be able to prove a search warrant was invalid if:
- The law enforcement officer purposefully lied to the judge about the facts that justified a warrant;
- The warrant was not sufficiently detailed about the area or evidence to be searched for; or
- The judge was biased in some way.
What is the Exclusionary Rule?
The exclusionary rule allows a defendant to have certain evidence found during an invalid search or seizure suppressed.
Additionally, this rule extends to any evidence that was discovered indirectly because of the illegal search.
Prosecutors will attempt to avoid this exception by proving that the evidence indirectly related to the incident is far enough removed from the illegal search and seizure that the exclusionary rule doesn't apply.
They may also try to prove it was found independently and not just through the invalid search, or that there was a reasonably strong probability that the law enforcement officers would have found it anyways.
What are the Protections Under the Fourth Amendment?
As noted above, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizures.
Further, it requires a search warrant to be sanctioned and it must be supported by probable cause. The Fourth Amendment says:
- “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The Fourth Amendment protects certain types of expectations that are related to a federal warrant, including searches and other seizures:
- A search occurring when a reasonable expectation of privacy is infringed,
- Seizure when there is interference with another person's property,
- Seizure related to the interference with someone's freedom.
We can ensure your rights are protected and will make appropriate legal challenges related to search and seizure of a person or property. Further, we might be able to exclude the incriminating evidence.
Federal Criminal Defense for Search Warrants
It should be noted that just because federal law enforcement agents obtained a search warrant, it doesn't always mean it was valid.
Remember, you have a legal right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
We might be able to show the show the warrant lacked sufficient probable cause or too broad in the description where agents were allowed to search.
Clearly, agents are attempting to locate and seize incriminating evidence that is normally directly connected to a federal criminal investigation, but this does not mean you don't have legal rights.
We will thoroughly review the details to determine a strategy for best possible outcome.
It might be possible to negotiate with the federal prosecutor for a favorable resolution to your case.
Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County with two office locations. Contact us at (310) 328-3776 for an initial consultation.