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How Federal Defense Attorneys Can Challenge Evidence from Search Warrants

By Spodek Law Group | October 19, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 21, 2023)

Last Updated on: 21st October 2023, 09:10 am


How Federal Defense Attorneys Can Challenge Evidence from Search Warrants

When law enforcement conducts a search based on a warrant, the resulting evidence can seem unassailable. However, experienced federal defense attorneys know that just because a judge signed a warrant doesn’t mean the search was legal. There are many ways for lawyers to challenge both the warrant itself and the way officers executed it. Suppressing this pivotal evidence can sometimes lead prosecutors to drop charges altogether.

Attack Probable Cause for the Warrant

For any search warrant to be valid, officers must demonstrate probable cause to a judge. This means providing credible information to show evidence of a crime will likely be found in the location to be searched. Defense lawyers will scrutinize the warrant affidavit for any legal deficiencies. Some strategies include:

  • Pointing out material omissions in the facts provided to the judge. Leaving out information that would have undermined probable cause can invalidate a warrant.
  • Highlighting uncorroborated information from informants. Tips must be proven reliable and credible.
  • Questioning the accuracy of officer statements. Mistakes, exaggerations or mischaracterizations in the affidavit can undermine probable cause.
  • Challenging stale information. Probable cause must exist at the time the warrant is issued, so dated or stale evidence won’t suffice.

If the defense can show the warrant lacked solid probable cause, the fruits of the search may be excluded from evidence.

Attack the Scope of the Warrant

Search warrants must precisely describe the place to be searched and items to be seized. Agents can’t simply conduct a fishing expedition. As a result, warrants are strictly limited in scope. Defense lawyers will review warrants to ensure:

  • The place searched conformed to the warrant description. Even small deviations could result in exclusion.
  • Items seized were specifically covered in the warrant. Anything beyond its scope could be suppressed.
  • The warrant wasn’t overly broad or vague. Such defects may render it invalid.

By attacking technical issues with the warrant’s breadth, skilled attorneys can often get key evidence thrown out.

Even when a warrant is valid on its face, officers must execute it reasonably and properly. Defense lawyers look for execution errors like:

  • Excessive use of force
  • Failure to knock and announce before entering
  • Failure to provide a copy of the warrant when required
  • Seizing items after the warrant expired
  • Searches conducted outside the warrant’s scope

By demonstrating sloppy execution, the defense may convince the judge to suppress some or all fruits of the search.

File a Franks Motion

If officers intentionally or recklessly included false statements in the warrant affidavit, a Franks motion can get all evidence excluded. Under the Franks standard, the defense must show:

  • There was a deliberate falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth
  • The remaining content is insufficient for probable cause
  • The false information was necessary to the probable cause finding

While difficult to prove, Franks motions can completely invalidate a warrant when government misconduct is uncovered.

Cast Doubt at a Suppression Hearing

Before trial, defense lawyers can request a suppression hearing to argue for exclusion of evidence. Here, they get to cross-examine the officers involved, probe their credibility and cast doubt on their account. By undermining the government’s case, the defense may win suppression even without definitive proof of wrongdoing.

File Discovery Motions

To mount an effective warrant challenge, the defense must secure all relevant documents through discovery. Critical records include:

  • The search warrant and affidavit
  • Documents establishing probable cause
  • Inventories of items seized
  • Officer notes and reports
  • Communications about the search

Filing targeted discovery motions allows the defense to comb through government records for suppression issues.

Consult Warrant Challenges Experts

Given the complexities of search and seizure law, defense lawyers routinely consult and retain warrant challenge experts. These include:

  • Former police officers. They can provide insight on proper procedures and identify execution flaws.
  • Forensic linguists. They can analyze the warrant affidavit to detect deception or vagueness.
  • Investigators. They can uncover omissions, falsities and misconduct issues.

Leveraging this specialty expertise bolsters the defense against questionable warrants.

File Parallel Civil Lawsuits

In addition to criminal suppression motions, consider filing a parallel civil rights lawsuit. Such suits allow broader discovery and additional lines of attack. They also put pressure on the government to avoid evidence suppression. While civil and criminal cases differ, the extra leverage provided by a civil suit can aid the defense.

Bottom Line

While search warrants provide law enforcement with potent investigative powers, they are not beyond challenge. Skilled federal defense lawyers can often find ways to suppress illegally obtained evidence through warrant attacks. By taking advantage of these strategies, the defense can undermine the government’s case and gain critical leverage. With close scrutiny and a bit of creativity, seemingly solid warrants can sometimes crumble.


DOJ Criminal Resource Manual on Suppression and Franks Motions
Cornell Law Search Warrant Overview
Nolo Search and Seizure FAQ
Lawyers.com Overview of Evidence Suppression

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