Legal Scope of Search Warrants Somewhat Elusive

The requirement of a valid search warrant prior to the search of individual‘s property is a very important 4th Amendment protection. It is pretty clear that a failure to properly secure a search warrant where one is required constitutes an illegal search and seizure under the 4th Amendment. However, as with most issues of constitutional rights and criminal procedure, the devil is in the details.

One issue that frequently arises is the scope of the search warrant. Search warrants must be fairly specific in terms of the property to be searched and the items of interest. Overly broad warrants are not allowed.

The question is important because any evidence discovered and/or seized during an illegal search will be excluded from evidence. In other words, the evidence cannot be used in the prosecution of the defendant. These were the issues faced by the New Mexico Supreme Court in State v. Gurule.

The Investigation of Online Distribution of Child Pornography

The investigation itself is interesting. However, due to the complexity of the technological issues, the investigation is addressed only on a surface level.

The case involved an investigation of child pornography by the New Mexico Attorney General‘s Office‘s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which handles many of these cases. In this case, as in many such cases, the alleged distribution of child pornography took place over a peer-to-peer sharing network.

Upon investigation, the Attorney General was able to identify the internet carrier over which the pornography was distributed. The Attorney General then issued a subpoena to the carrier for the IP address from which the pornography was distributed. Based upon this investigation, the Attorney General was able to identify a target for a search warrant.

Scope of Warrant

Based upon the findings from the investigation, the officer requested a search warrant based upon her affidavit showing “probable cause to believe that evidence of the exploitation of children by means of the possession and attempted distribution of child pornography” in violation of the New Mexico statute would be found at the defendant‘s address.

The officer‘s affidavit and the search warrant issued thereon were pretty broad. The agent requested authorization to view and seize all materials related to child pornography distribution to be found at the defendant‘s address.

Based on the agent‘s affidavit, a judge decided that there was probable cause and issued a search warrant. In addition to other items, the officers seized a digital camera. As it happens, the camera did in fact hold evidence of a crime.

The problem was that the camera had not been identified in the affidavit or the warrant. The defendant challenged the admissibility of evidence seized from the camera and the New Mexico Court of Appeals agreed. The New Mexico Supreme Court saw it differently.

The Warrant Was Not Overly Broad

Specifically, the Court had to decide whether the affidavit was too broad and generic to allow for the search and seizure of the camera, since it didn‘t list the camera specifically. The Court looked to a previous case, State v. Hinahara, in which the Court of Appeals ruled that when “there is probable cause to search for a particular item, the officer can search every container and location within the permitted area where that item could be located.”

In Hinahara, the court found that even when an item wasn‘t specifically listed, if it‘s potentially connected to the child pornography crime described in the affidavit, then it‘s within the scope of the warrant. The Supreme Court reasoned that because the agent‘s investigation revealed that a computer was being used for child pornography, and that online predators typically possess images of child pornography, it is necessary to “seize all computer devices and photographic equipment” in possession of the defendant at the location identified in the warrant.

In short, the warrant was legal and all evidence seized from, or arising from, the camera was fully admissible against the defendant.

Breadth of Ruling

Though this case dealt with child pornography, there is no reason to believe that the same rationale might be used for other criminal investigations. In short, are tools of the crime to be implicitly included in a warrant?

The ruling will likely as is generally the case lead to additional questions as the scope of the ruling is defined. One obvious question that will come up is the definition of tools of the crime.

It may be expected that law enforcement will define this rather liberally pushing the boundaries of legal search and seizure. Likewise, criminal defense attorneys will be compelled to rein it in.


Related Readings:
Search Warrants Issued by Phone
Efficiency No Grounds for Search & Seizure Exception
Search & Seizure Rights Greater Under New Mexico Law than 4th Amendment

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