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Understanding Federal Search Warrants and Defense Options

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Aug 18, 2022

Any time a federal agent attempts to search or seize your property, it is a cause for concern. Luckily the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides some protection against such an event, enshrining “the right of the people…against unreasonable search and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause….

The Bill of Rights contains the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, and citizens are guaranteed a right to privacy and protection from unlawful search and seizure.

Federal Search Warrants and Defense Options

The Fourth Amendment protects certain expectations related to a federal warrant, such as searches and seizures occurring when a reasonable expectation of privacy is infringed, seizure of property with interference, and detaining somebody while interfering with their freedom.

If you are under investigation for a federal crime, agents can be aggressive in seeking the evidence, including warrantless searches, which are not uncommon.

When a federal law enforcement agency, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), believes you have committed a crime, they could ask a federal judge for a warrant to search your property.

To obtain a federal warrant, agents must present a written affidavit with specific details about why they believe you committed a crime and why they believe the evidence of the crime can be found on the property they are asking to search.

This means that if you are the target of a federal criminal investigation, you are facing the possibility of federal law enforcement agents showing up at your door without prior notice.  

However, you have legal rights. Suppose a federal law enforcement agent has contacted you with a warrant. In that case, this page from our federal criminal defense lawyers will give you vital information to help you as the situation progresses.

State Warrants Versus Federal Warrants

Both state and federal governments can issue a warrant for search and seizure. The main difference between the two types is the alleged criminal act. The warrant is being used to investigate. State-issued warrants:

  • Involve alleged violations of state laws,
  • Enforced by local law enforcement officials,
  • Approved by state judges.

Federally-issued warrants:

  • Issued when a federal law is alleged to have been broken,
  • Enforced by a federal agency (such as the FBI),
  • Authorized by a federal magistrate judge.

Alleged crimes that fall under federal jurisdiction also include:

  • Crimes that cross state lines,
  • Crimes that occur on a federally-owned property,
  • Crimes that take place in an airplane or an airport.

How Are Federal Search and Seizure Warrants Obtained?

Federal search and seizure warrants are executed when the government believes you have committed a crime or that evidence of a crime can be found somewhere on your private property.

A federal official must produce an affidavit with evidence supporting the claim that your property should be searched or seized. Possible evidence could be:

  • Physical evidence
  • Sworn testimony from a witness
  • Testimony that occurs over the phone or an electric device (Rule 4.1)

It should be noted that there are exceptions that allow a federal agent to search and seize property without a warrant, including but not limited to:

  • If the property owner voluntary consents to a search,
  • If a weapon is involved in the alleged crime, and law enforcement officials have reason to believe it could be used against them or destroyed,
  • If the incriminating evidence is in plain sight but unable to be accessed without entering the property,
  • When there is no reasonable expectation of privacy,
  • If the property has been abandoned or is considered illegally obtained,
  • To prevent harm.

Further, if law enforcement has probable cause to believe a vehicle has contraband or evidence of illegal activity, they can search it without a warrant.  This exception exists because it's considered unrealistic to seek a warrant for an inherently mobile location, and car owners have less expectation of privacy inside their vehicles.

If law enforcement is chasing a suspect in public and the suspect hides in a private facility, they have a right to enter the property in “hot pursuit” without a warrant.

Execution of Federal Search and Seizure Warrants

After a magistrate judge has issued the warrant, federal law enforcement officers will have 14 days to enforce the warrant. The warrant itself will identify:

  • The name of the person the warrant is for,
  • The property that will be searched or seized,
  • Which judge will preside over evidence discovered.

Many times during the execution of the warrant, an arrest will happen simultaneously.

Execution of Federal Search and Seizure Warrants

However, if you are not arrested, that should not be taken as a sign that your troubles are over.

Often, warrants are served during the evidence-gathering period of a more extensive investigation, and arrests may be delayed until an ironclad case for indictment.

Regardless of the exceptions discussed above, if federal agents search without a warrant, they may not have the right to do so.

It might be possible to challenge the legality of a search and seizure of property or a person, but there must be sufficient legal grounds.

To best protect yourself from criminal prosecution, retain a lawyer when you know that a federal search warrant has been authorized.

How to Defend Against a Federal Warrant

The most effective defense against a federally-issued search warrant is challenging its legality. Sometimes warrants are issued in haste, which creates opportunities for procedural mistakes to occur or for evidentiary details to be overlooked or rushed. Common ways in which legality is argued are:

  • Underlying evidence used for the affidavit is false or incomplete,
  • False statements by federal agents in support of the affidavit,
  • Probable cause issues with obtaining the warrant,
  • Witness that provided the evidence for the affidavit is biased,
  • Unreliable evidence was used to support the affidavit,
  • Federal law enforcement officer requesting the warrant is prejudiced,
  • Judge is biased against the subject of the warrant,
  • Information in the affidavit is outdated,
  • Property identified in the warrant is not specific enough,
  • Property required to be searched or seized is not closely enough related to the alleged crime.

If evidence was recovered during the execution of the warrant, it is possible to challenge the legality of the search in other ways. In that case, the defense might involve rendering the found evidence inadmissible.

How to Defend Against a Federal Warrant

This could be argued if the evidence was discovered outside the parameters established in the warrant or if the evidence recovered did not match the expectations put forth in the warrant.

Whatever the reason for the search, your legal right to privacy is protected. Contacting an experienced lawyer who understands federal search and seizure warrants is the most innovative way to ensure those rights stay intact.

If federal law enforcement agents have acquired a search warrant from a judge, it doesn't always mean the warrant was legally valid. Perhaps we can prove the warrant was not based on sufficient probable cause, or it was too broad to describe where agents could search.

Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California. We provide legal representation for federal criminal issues across the United States. You can contact our office for an initial case review via phone or use the contact form.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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