Federal Search Warrants and Legal Defenses
A federal search warrant is a document usually issued by a magistrate judge that authorizes federal law enforcement agents, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to search a person, place, or thing for any evidence of criminal activity.
First, however, federal agents must present a written affidavit detailing why they believe you committed a federal crime and why they believe the evidence of the crime can be found on the property they plan to search. Simply put, they must establish probable cause.
Notably, a federal search warrant must meet several requirements. For example, a judge or magistrate must issue it, and it must specify the place they will search and the person or thing to be seized.
A judge could issue search warrants when there is probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime and that they will find the evidence in the listed place. Suppose you are under investigation by a federal law enforcement agency. In that case, they might seek evidence by searching through search warrants.
When federal agents attempt to search or seize your property, you have some legal protections, such as the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. It says that “no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause….”
However, it is not a guarantee against all searches and seizures, but only those deemed unreasonable under the law.
The Fourth Amendment protects specific expectations in federal warrants, such as searches occurring when a reasonable expectation of privacy is infringed and detaining someone while interfering with their freedom.
If you are the target of a federal criminal investigation, federal agents might knock on your door without notice, but you still have legal rights. Let's review further below.
What is the Difference Between a State and Federal Warrant?
State and federal governments issue warrants to search and seize, but they differ. For example, state-issued warrants deal with alleged violations of local state laws. They are issued by state judges and enforced by state law enforcement officers.
On the other hand, federally-issued warrants will have the following factors in common:
- Only issued when a federal law was allegedly violated;
- Offenses that fall under federal jurisdiction;
- Approved by a federal magistrate judge;
- Enforced by federal law enforcement agencies;
- Offense that crosses state lines or international borders,
- Crimes occurring on federally-owned property; or
- Offenses aboard an aircraft or an airport.
How Can Federal Agents Get a Search Warrant?
As noted, federal search warrants are obtained by getting approval from a magistrate when the government believes you have committed a crime or evidence of a crime can be located on your property.
Federal agents will write a “probable cause” affidavit that includes evidence to support their request for the search warrant, which could consist of physical evidence and testimony from witnesses and agents.
Under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 4.1 Complaint, Warrant, or Summons by Telephone or Other Reliable Electronic Means says “(a) In General. A magistrate judge may consider information communicated by telephone or other reliable electronic means when reviewing a complaint or deciding whether to issue a warrant or summons.”
What Are the Exceptions?
Notably, there are exceptions allowing federal agents to search and seize property without a warrant, including the following situations;
- When the property owner consents to a search;
- When a weapon is involved, and agents believe it could be used against them or destroyed;
- When incriminating evidence is in plain sight;
- When there is no reasonable expectation of privacy;
- When the property was abandoned or unlawfully obtained;
- When a vehicle has contraband or evidence of illegal activity;
- When agents are chasing a suspect, and they hide somewhere, which is known as “hot pursuit” without a warrant;
- When it is to prevent harm.
Why are there exceptions for vehicles? They exist because seeking a warrant for a mobile location that can quickly be moved is considered unrealistic. Simply put, car owners have less expectation of privacy inside their vehicles.
Regardless of these exceptions, if federal agents search without a warrant, it is possible to challenge the legality of a search and seizure of property or a person, but there must be sufficient grounds.
How Are Federal Search Warrants Executed?
Once a magistrate judge signs the warrant, federal agents have 14 days to execute the warrant, which will include the following information:
- The name of the individual;
- The property to be searched or seized,
- The name of the judge who will preside over the evidence.
Often, the person named will be arrested during the execution of the warrant, but if this does not happen, it does not mean they will not be charged later.
The purpose of search warrants is to gather evidence during an investigation. Thus, once the evidence is examined, which could take weeks or months, an arrest could occur later as part of the indictment.
How Can You Defend Against a Federal Warrant?
Challenging its legality is one of the best defenses against a federally-issued search warrant. In some cases, warrants are issued too quickly, which might open the door to fighting based on procedural mistakes, such as a lack of evidentiary details.
Some of the most common arguments against the legality of federal search warrants include the following:
- Probable cause issues in getting the warrant signed;
- Outdated information was included in the affidavit;
- Federal agents using false statements on the affidavit;
- Deliberate omissions or incomplete info on the affidavit;
- Underlying evidence is false or incomplete;
- Unreliable evidence in support of the affidavit;
- Biased witness gave info to support the affidavit;
- Biased federal agent requested the warrant;
- Biased federal judge on the subject approved the warrant;
- Description of property in the warrant was too broad;
- Property to be seized is not closely enough related to the crime.
There might also be other ways to challenge the legality of the search warrant based on the case details. If successful, the judge could rule that the seized evidence is inadmissible in court and can't be used against you.
Perhaps the evidence was discovered outside the scope established in the warrant or didn't match the expectations.
Regardless of the reasons for the search, you have legal rights but will need a seasoned federal defense lawyer to expose any issues. Perhaps we can prove there was a lack of probable cause. Reaching out to a lawyer knowledgeable about the search and seizure rule may be the best way to protect your rights.
If you are under investigation for a federal crime, agents can aggressively seek the evidence, including warrantless searches, which are not uncommon. Retaining a lawyer when you know that a federal search warrant has been authorized is best to protect yourself from criminal prosecution.
You can contact our office for a free initial case review via phone or the contact form. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.