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The 4th Amendment and Errors in Executing a Search Warrant

Search warrants are common in many drug cases throughout California. However, there are strict rules and regulations regarding the execution of a search warrant. Failure by law enforcement to execute a search warrant properly could lead to evidence being withheld from court and the possibility of your case getting dismissed. If you are facing criminal charges related to a search by police, it is important that you understand your rights related to unconstitutional searches and seizures.

Often, law enforcement might try to execute a search warrant and learn as they’re executing the search warrant that the circumstances are a little different than they had originally thought. In most cases involving search warrants, criminal defense attorneys are not attacking the warrant itself but instead are looking at how the police officers go about the execution of the search warrant.

A Supreme Court Example

For example, a team of police officers goes to a location to execute a search. The search warrant allows them to search the third-floor apartment of a suspect. The police officers go up to the third floor, enter, and then start searching. In this example, they find drugs and drug paraphernalia. Once they are inside the unit, they realize that that there are two units on the third floor not just one and they went into the wrong unit for the wrong person. They then go into the other unit and do the search that the warrant had approved. However, they still collect all that evidence, drugs, and paraphernalia from the first apartment. Then they arrest that other person for the drug possession and paraphernalia offenses.

This example is actually a case that went before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court looked at whether the evidence should have been excluded. Specifically, whether the police officers had violated the Fourth Amendment by doing that search of the two units rather than focusing on the one unit that the warrant specified. The Supreme Court ultimately decided that the police officers’ actions in that situation were reasonable. This was due to the warrant allowing a search of the third floor of the person’s apartment, which they believed was the third floor.

The police officers didn’t know that there were two units on the third floor rather than just one and found that the search was reasonable. They weren’t going to penalize the prosecution and the police officers by suppressing the evidence just because it turned out they had learned something during the search that they didn’t know beforehand.

However, if we change the facts, the evidence may have been suppressed. For example, let’s say that the police officers were in an apartment building and the warrant just says you can search the suspect’s apartment on the third floor or the suspect’s apartment, which is on the third floor. Then the police officers reach the third floor, and they see multiple doors with multiple unit numbers. In this situation, it would be unreasonable for a police officer to just go into a random unit and start searching around.

Another Example from the Supreme Court

Here’s another example from the Supreme Court. In this example, police officers get a warrant to search somebody’s home and they serve the warrant. They go into the home and learn that the person doesn’t even live there anymore. Now, a completely unrelated person lives there. The previous person that they were looking for had moved out three months prior, but the police went in and detained the couple who were living there. Police officers did a sweep of the area to see whether anybody else was there. It turned out there wasn’t anyone else in the house and they had clearly made a mistake and left.

This situation ended up in front of the Supreme Court and what the Supreme Court ultimately decided is that the police officer’s conduct was reasonable. The police officers didn’t know that the person had moved and once they had learned of their mistake, they ended the search. They didn’t continue prying into the people’s individual privacy interests but rather left once learning their mistake.

There are facts that we can add to that scenario that would make the situation more unreasonable. Let’s say that the police officers, even after they learned of their mistake, continued to search or detain the people for an unnecessarily long amount of time. These kinds of facts, if added, would then make the situation more unreasonable and give a stronger argument for showing that something unreasonable did happen.

These are two examples of how errors when a search warrant is being executed could ultimately be found to be reasonable errors or under different facts could be unreasonable. It all depends on the facts.

Contact The Nieves Law Firm

If these scenarios sound like something you are dealing with in the Bay Area, The Nieves Law Firm may be able to help. We have experience with a variety of drug-related cases involving search warrants. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation with a member of our team.

Author Bio

Jo-Anna Nieves is the Founder and Managing Attorney of The Nieves Law Firm, an Oakland criminal defense law firm she created in 2012. With more than 11 years of experience in criminal defense, she has zealously represented clients in a wide range of legal matters, including DUIs, domestic violence, expungement, federal crimes, juvenile law, motions to vacate, sex crimes, violent crimes, and other criminal charges.

Jo-Anna received her Juris Doctor from the Florida State University College of Law and is a member of the State Bar of California. She has received numerous accolades for her work, including being named a Super Lawyer Rising Star the past 8 years, the #12 Fastest Growing Law Firm in the U.S. by Law Firm 500 in 2019, and one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. by Inc 5000 in 2023.

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