The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the people from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement. This means that under many circumstances (but not all), police must first obtain a warrant before conducting a search. But how do they get a warrant and what does it allow them to do?
How warrants are issued
Washington has many laws covering searches and seizures by police. If a warrant is required for a particular search, one of those statutes states that it must be issued by a judge. Law enforcement must make a case to the judge, with evidence, explaining why the search (and possible seizure) is necessary.
The judge can only issue a search warrant once they are convinced that probable cause exists and they believe that evidence of a crime will be found at the location that police wish to search. The location can be a physical place, such as a home or business, a vehicle or a person.
What is the scope of a search warrant?
The application for a search warrant must provide specifics of where police intend to search and what they expect to find. Once issued, the warrant reflects these specifics, thereby limiting the scope of law enforcement’s authority to conduct the search. They cannot, for example, obtain a warrant to search a car and then use that warrant as a basis to search another car next to it.
This does not mean that police are completely limited to what the warrant says. Circumstances can arise, during a valid search, which will permit them to seize property not identified in the warrant. If they locate evidence of another crime, separate from the one being investigated with the warrant, that too can be lawfully seized.
Although the basics of search-and-seizure law are fairly straightforward, there are many exceptions that routinely come up. However, police are always obliged to conduct searches within the law’s parameters. If you believe you have been subjected to an illegal search and seizure, speak to a professional who is experienced in Washington criminal law.