What Level of Detail is Required in a Search Warrant?

In any kind of criminal investigation, the police usually need to get a warrant before searching a suspect’s property. Warrants must be specific rather than general. That is, the warrant must describe the place that needs to be searched and the objects that the police are looking for, such as drugs, firearms, or materials containing child pornography. If a police search exceeds the scope of the warrant, a judge may suppress – exclude – any evidence obtained from the subsequent criminal trial.

Clever prosecutors will sometimes try and convince a judge to interpret a warrant more broadly than it was intended. This can unfairly prejudice a defendant’s right to a fair trial. The following California case illustrates how courts are too smart to fall for such legal trickery.

The defendant, in this case, was accused of possession of child pornography. The key piece of evidence was the defendant’s laptop computer, which the police obtained during a search of his residence. The problem is that while the police had a warrant, it did not actually cover this residence.

Here is what happened: A police detective traced what he believed to be an illegal child pornography download to a specific Internet Protocol (IP) address. This IP address belonged to an internet service subscriber living in what was later described on the warrant as a “single-story single-family residence.” The defendant lived in a smaller, separate structure located behind this residence.

The police initially searched the house named in the warrant. There, one of the tenants informed the officers that the landlord “lived in back.” At this point, the officers broke down the door of the landlord’s residence and proceeded to conduct an additional search.

The trial judge held this second search exceeded the scope of the warrant and suppressed the evidence gathered from the defendant’s laptop. The attorney general appealed this decision. But the appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the search was illegal.

The appeals court ruling is particularly noteworthy because of how the attorney general tried to justify the search. Since the original warrant was based on connecting the alleged distribution of child pornography to an IP address, the attorney general maintained it was “reasonable” for the police to search “anyone with access to the internet signal” associated with that IP address.

Put another way, let’s say the cops get a warrant to search your neighbor’s house based on their IP address. In theory, the signal from their home’s wi-fi network could reach your property. According to attorney general’s argument, that would give the police permission to search your house as well.

Call a Skilled Defense Attorney

Whether the case involves simple drug possession or distribution of child pornography, there are certain basic rules that must be followed when the police search your property. If you have been charged with a crime, contact an experienced lawyer, for help in defending against these charges.