A search warrant is an order from a judge allowing federal agents to legally search your property or place where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution bars the government from unlawfully intruding upon your property. Your property can include various things, such as phone records, residence, electronic devices, storage units, and business/office.
Any federal agency can apply for a federal search warrant. The typical agencies that participate in federal criminal investigations include:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
- Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
- Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
How do Federal Agents Obtain a Search Warrant?
Obtaining a federal search warrant requires an agent to submit an affidavit made under penalty of perjury to a U.S. Magistrate Judge. The affidavit outlines the agent's investigation and states the reason(s) why a search warrant is necessary.
The reviewing judge will determine whether the evidence presented to them rises to the level of probable cause. Probable cause is when there is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed or when evidence of a crime may be present in a place to be searched.
If probable cause is met, the judge will sign off on the proposed warrant and transmit it to the agent(s). If probable cause is lacking, the judge will decline to sign the warrant. However, agents may resubmit a request for a search warrant if they obtain more evidence.
Challenging the Legality of a Federal Search Warrant
Challenging the legality of a federal search warrant is made if a case is filed against the suspect. Ordinarily, it is made pursuant to a motion to suppress evidence unlawfully seized. The common ways to challenge a search warrant are:
- The agents searched beyond the permissible scope of the warrant;
- The search warrant affidavit did not contain sufficient probable cause;
- The judge was intentionally or recklessly misled or lied to by agents in the affidavit.
If a judge grants a motion to suppress evidence, then the evidence discovered as a result of the search will be suppressed. In most instances, the prosecution will be unable to proceed with their case.
Target or Subject in a Federal Investigation
Federal agents do not draft a search warrant and bring it to a judge unless they believe there is evidence against you. Whether you're a target or subject in a criminal probe, you must enlist the help of an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Criminal charges will likely follow after agents search your home or your electronic devices. It is too ignorant to have faith in the criminal justice system. Early intervention by our office can make the difference between serving time in prison or having your case rejected entirely from prosecution.
If you were not a subject or target in a federal investigation, the agents would have kindly asked you to provide them information. Alternatively, the agents would have served you with a grand jury subpoena. However, the government elected to surprise you in the morning in an effort to prevent you from deleting, destroying, or hiding evidence in their investigation. This is a strong indication that criminal charges will follow.
Returning Your Property
Property that agents seized can be returned unless it is or contains evidence of a crime. For instance, cell phones may contain text message activity between co-conspirators. In that case, the government will keep the phone until the conclusion of the case. However, the government will ordinarily return devices that contain irrelevant information to the case – e.g., your child's school iPad. The government will conduct an investigation and thorough search before returning devices. Unfortunately, returning property can take weeks, if not months, before items are returned.