Search warrants may seem like a free pass for police to look for whatever they want, but that is not true. Like most rules of criminal procedure, the Constitution affords a lot of protection to citizens against police abuse of power. Although a search warrant does allow police access to a particular place to look for evidence of a crime, it must meet certain criteria to be issues, follow certain procedures for its execution, and is limited in scope—with one exception: the Plain View Doctrine.
Basics of Search Warrants
Probable cause is the baseline requirement to obtain a search warrant. Basically, law enforcement must have a reasonable belief that evidence or contraband of a crime can be discovered by a search. An application and supporting affidavit is required that must be reviewed by a neutral magistrate who then issues the warrant. The application must specify where the search will take place, what is to be searched, and what evidence is sought. This last part has to be somewhat specific, it cannot simply state that evidence exists and police will find it. This is because citizens are protected from police going on “fishing expeditions” to find evidence with no real belief that a crime has in fact occurred.
In executing a search warrant, police are bound by the search warrant. This means that a search has to be limited to the particular evidence they are looking for and restricted to looking only in those places where that evidence may be found. For example, if police are searching for a large item, say a stolen television, they should not be looking in jewelry boxes or dresser drawers because a TV could not possibly be found there. This brings us to the Plain View doctrine.
Plain View Doctrine
The Plain View doctrine is a rule carved out for police to obtain evidence they come across without a warrant to support its seizure. Basically, this rule means that if police see something that they can readily identify as evidence or contraband, they are allowed to lawfully seize it even if it is not described in the warrant. This is an objective standard that relies on the validity of police presence in the first place. This means that the evidence found in “plain view” is valid so long as police are allowed to be there in the first place and discovery of the evidence is not outside the scope of the original warrant. For example, if police are executing a search warrant of your home for weapons and they see bags of cocaine on your coffee table, that evidence can be seized because it is readily apparent as contraband even though it is not a gun and they aren’t there to find drugs. See Horton v. California.
So how do you know if police have violated your rights if they have a search warrant? The answer is you don’t. Understanding the basics of criminal law and procedure as a citizen is valuable so you know that a qualified Illinois Criminal Defense Attorney can assert these arguments in your defense.