If the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or other federal law enforcement agency suspects that you committed a crime, they may seek a warrant to search your property. Search warrants will provide investigators with the right to enter your property. However, there are federal laws that protect the legal rights of suspects.
It is critical that you understand your legal rights and that you take the time to ensure that law enforcement is carrying out a valid search of your property. If federal law enforcement agencies suspect you of a crime, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. If you fail to assert your legal rights, you may forfeit certain protections and provide investigators with information that they can use against you in a court of law.
Understanding the Fourth Amendment
You have the right to legal protections even if law enforcement suspects that you committed a crime. The Fourth Amendment states that law enforcement agencies cannot carry out unreasonable searches or seizures. Part of the protections provided in the constitution involves the need for investigators to obtain a search warrant.
Search warrants must contain detailed information regarding what police are seeking to investigate. Officers should only be able to search when they have probable cause and a detailed description of the place, items, and persons they intend to search.
There are explicit expectations regarding federal search warrants. If you believe law enforcement violated your rights by carrying out an improper search, you should speak to a lawyer as soon as possible. In some cases, your attorney might be able to use violations of your Fourth Amendments rights to prevent law enforcement from using evidence against you. In many cases, excluding evidence vital to the state's case might lead to a reduction or dismissal of the charges that have been filed against you.
What is Probable Cause?
Police officers and other investigators can claim probable cause when there is a likelihood that they will find evidence in a specific location. If investigators claim they searched a location based on a hunch, that will not be strong enough for those officers to claim probable cause. Sometimes, it is not clear whether or not investigators had probable cause, and different judges and others might disagree about the validity of a search.
How Law Enforcement Obtains a Warrant
When obtaining a search warrant, police will need to convince an unbiased judge that evidence of criminal activity exists in a particular place. The police or other law enforcement will need to provide a written statement detailing their observations, information from informants, witnesses, and private citizens, which led them to believe the location contains valuable evidence. The investigator seeking the warrant will need to sign the document, an "affidavit," under oath.
Lying on an affidavit is a form of perjury. Therefore, law enforcement officers must be cautious only to provide a statement of facts that they are willing to attest as true. Of course, in some cases, informants or others may offer inaccurate information. If the police officer or other investigator reasonably believes the information was accurate, this would not be a case of perjury. However, if the officer embellished or lied on the affidavit, they can face prosecution and severe legal consequences.
Determining the Legality of a Warrant
It can often be challenging to determine whether a warrant is legitimate and legal. Your attorney may review the warrant in detail to determine whether it violated your rights. As a part of that evaluation, the lawyer will look at:
- The items that investigators seized
- The specific description of the place police intended to search
- Any false statements officers used to support their affidavit and obtain the warrant
- The credibility and reasonableness of informant information used to support the affidavit
- Any unreliable information used to support the affidavit
- Violations involved in the execution of the warrant
- Whether investigators had true probable cause to obtain the warrant
If a warrant is overly broad, your attorney may challenge it based upon a lack of specificity. Additionally, suppose police seized evidence in the form of items and property not included in the warrant. In that case, this could also help your lawyer argue in favor of excluding or suppressing improperly obtained evidence.
For example, if police officers obtained a warrant to search your garage and they carried out a detailed search of your backyard, the location contained in the warrant is not the same as the property that officers searched.
Additionally, if the warrant only lists one person as the subject of the search, officers cannot carry out a separate search of another individual. In order to conduct a search of a different person who happened to be at the search location, police would need a separate case of probable cause to search that individual. There are certain exceptions, such as when an officer may frisk a person for weapons in this situation where that officer reasonably felt their safety was at risk.
If your federal criminal defense lawyer manages to prove that the affidavit used to obtain the warrant did not include enough evidence to support probable cause, the judge may quash the warrant. In these cases, the prosecutors cannot use any evidence by enforcement seized as a part of their search.
Searches often occur without a warrant. Not every warrantless search violates a suspect's constitutional rights. If the search is reasonable under the circumstances and the individual does not have an expectation of privacy, the officers may not need to obtain a search warrant.
One example is the plain view doctrine, which states that police can obtain evidence of a crime that is in plain view without obtaining a warrant. For example, if an officer pulls over a driver for speeding and notices a bag of drugs on the passenger seat, that officer can examine and seize the drugs as well as arrest that individual.
In emergencies, police can also conduct a warrantless search. Judges will often uphold these searches in cases where an officer here's indications of a violent attack and screaming inside of a house, or if the police are pursuing a fleeing felon who then enters their home to evade law enforcement.
Please may also stop and frisk an individual in uncertain circumstances, such as if they believe that a person is armed and dangerous. These "Terry" frisks can then lead to probable cause for an officer to place that person under arrest.
Fourth Amendment Protections Can be Complicated
If you are a suspect of a crime, you may have questions regarding your legal rights. The laws governing warrants and search and seizures can be complicated. Investigators sometimes violate an individual's rights without even realizing that their search violated a suspect’s legal rights. This is why it is critical to hire a skilled criminal defense attorney to safeguard your constitutional rights and develop a strong defense strategy on your behalf.
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