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Search warrants must be specific and limited in scope

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides a foundational right to Americans: the right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

The language of Amendment IV reads as follows:

  • The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, 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 particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Most people probably understand that police must have a reason to search you or your property, but the reality is that many criminal charges are based on evidence obtained in unreasonable searches and seizures.

You'll note in the language of the Fourth Amendment that police must have probable cause in order to obtain and execute a search warrant. So if you have a broken tail light or if you're pulled over for speeding, does a police officer automatically have cause to search you or your vehicle? No -- not automatically.

However, a police officer may have a right to search your vehicle if drugs or other illegal contraband are in plain view, or if the officer believes that something in the vehicle poses an imminent threat of harm.

Police may also obtain a search warrant from a judge, but you'll note in the Fourth Amendment that a search warrant must describe particularly "the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." In other words, if a warrant specifies that police have a right to search your back yard, the police do not automatically have a right to extend the search into your garage or house.

In order for a search to legally be expanded to a place not named in the warrant, there must be evidence suggesting that more evidence of a crime exists elsewhere on the premises. Police may also obtain another warrant that extends the search.

Unfortunately, law enforcement officers often fail to follow proper procedure, and in other cases, the police blatantly violate people's rights by conducting illegal searches and seizures.

If your criminal case involves any of these concerns, then speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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