Search warrants authorize law enforcement officers to search for specific items at a specific time and in a specific location, and to seize those items. If you are targeted with a search warrant in southern California, you will need the services of an Orange County criminal defense attorney.

When do California judges issue search warrants? What rules must the police officers follow when a search warrant is served? And when can the police conduct a search without a search warrant?

If you’ll keep reading, you will learn the answers to these questions, and you will also learn more about search warrants and about your legal rights here in the State of California.

What Does the Constitution Require?

“Unreasonable” searches and seizures are expressly forbidden by the U.S. Constitution, which requires police officers to have a warrant before they may enter your residence, vehicle, or place of work to conduct a search related to a criminal investigation.

The police may obtain a search warrant by persuading a judge that they have “probable cause” to believe that evidence of a crime may be found at a particular location. Probable cause must be supported by circumstances and facts. A mere hunch is not sufficient to obtain a search warrant.

The police usually give a judge an affidavit (a statement written under oath) which spells out the evidence that police officers have observed or have obtained from informants or private citizens. If the judge believes the affidavit establishes probable cause, a search warrant will be issued.

What Else Should You Know About Search Warrants?

When search warrants are issued, suspects connected to the search location are not notified and cannot contest the issuance of the warrant. Only after a warranted search has been conducted may the warrant (and the presumption of “reasonable cause” behind it) be challenged in court.

An affidavit must inform the law enforcement representative who signs it that if any of the statements in the affidavit are false, those false statements constitute perjury. If a search warrant is then issued, the warrant must be signed by a judge and then legally and promptly executed.

Search warrants must explicitly identify the items that are being sought and the premises to be searched. A detailed description of the items that police officers are authorized to seize must be spelled out in the search warrant.

The word “curtilage,” when used in search warrants, can refer to a driveway, patio, lawn, garden, or any part of the premises other than the main structure. Vehicles on the premises are also included in the curtilage.

What is Required of the Police?

Search warrants require the police to provide a property’s owner or tenant with an inventory of whatever items are confiscated by police officers.

Police officers may only search the location described in the search warrant and only for the items listed in the warrant. They may not enter a house if a search warrant is for a backyard, for instance, and they may not search for firearms if a warrant only lists illegal marijuana plants.

However, if police officers discover contraband or evidence of criminal activity in the course of a warranted search, they can probably seize that contraband or evidence legally.

Do the Police Always Need a Search Warrant?

What you’ve read to this point may sound like the police are required to have a search warrant whenever they are looking for evidence of criminal activity, but that is not the case. Unwarranted searches are routinely conducted by police officers in a number of situations.

The courts have spelled out the circumstances where search warrants are not required. These include searches made at the time of an arrest, searches that fall under the “plain view” doctrine, searches that are made with a property owner’s or tenant’s consent, and “emergency” searches.

If a property owner or tenant freely agrees to a search, and the police search only for whatever that person agreed to, the courts will probably uphold the legality of the search. However, the consent to search a house may not extend to the property’s curtilage.

What is the “Plain View” Doctrine?

The police do not need a warrant to confiscate evidence “in plain view” if a police officer is legally in the location where the evidence can be seen. For example, if an officer stops you for a traffic violation and sees drug paraphernalia in your car, the “plain view” doctrine may apply.

Additionally, the police do not need search warrants to conduct searches when criminal suspects are legally placed under arrest. During an arrest, the police may search a suspect as well as the location in the suspect’s immediate personal control (such as his or her apartment or vehicle).

What is a Protective Sweep?

If the police reasonably believe that a suspect’s accomplice may be hiding in the immediate area during or after the arrest of a suspect, they may legally conduct a “protective sweep” of the area.

A protective sweep is only a brief look at locations where accomplices may hide – inside closets and under beds, for example. Its purpose must be the protection of the police officers, not the discovery of evidence.

The police may also conduct warrantless searches in “emergency” circumstances when there is no time to obtain a warrant because the safety of the public is at risk or because important evidence in a criminal investigation may be lost or destroyed.

How Do Defense Attorneys Challenge Search Warrants?

The two primary tools that California criminal defense lawyers use to challenge the legality of search warrants are the “motion to traverse” and the “motion to quash.” A motion to traverse disputes the factual truth of the affidavit that the search warrant is based on.

A motion to quash claims that the affidavit the search warrant is based on presents evidence that is not sufficient to establish probable cause.

What is Important to Remember About Search Warrants?

For most of us in California, what is important to remember is that the police must allow you to read and examine a search warrant before or while they conduct a search, and they must provide you with a list of any items that are seized.

If you have any concerns or questions regarding a search warrant, or if you are being charged with a crime on the basis of evidence found during a warranted search, you will need to have sound legal advice from an Orange County criminal defense attorney as quickly as possible.