The media spends a lot of time discussing warrantless searches and the exceptions to the warrant requirement. Some people may overlook the possibility that even when police obtain a warrant that any evidence seized as a result of a search may not be fair game for trial. It is important to note that law enforcement and judges can make mistakes in the warrant process.
A recent case from the East Coast highlights how important it is to have a criminal defense lawyer review not only the evidence the prosecution is relying on, but also the procedures used to obtain evidence. In 2011, police opened a homicide investigation that continued for a roughly a year or more. Law enforcement began to suspect a man of being the driver of a getaway car linked to the murder.
In January 2013, police submitted a 10-page warrant application to search the alleged gang member’s residence for any cellphones or other electronic devices. They believed that the cellphone records might contain significant evidence related to the case. While the warrant application included a lengthy amount of fact to allegedly link the man to the homicide, authorities wanted to seize any cellphones or other devices due to their belief that gang members often communicate through electronic devices. The judge signed the warrant.
When police executed the warrant at the man’s apartment, they claim they found a gun that had been thrown through the window. Authorities charged the man with unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. His defense lawyer challenged the warrant at trial. The trial judge denied the motion to suppress and the man was convicted of the weapons charge.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit threw out the conviction, ruling that the warrant did not satisfy constitutional principles. The 10-page warrant application provided no evidence to support an individualized suspicion the man owned a cellphone or any other electronic device. The appellate court ruled that although most people have cellphones, law enforcement cannot rely on such generalities to obtain a search warrant to enter a person’s home. The warrant requirement cannot be satisfied by alleging that because most people have a cellphone, a particular individual must own one.