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Search Warrants Laws in California


Search warrant laws in California are generally understood by most people, but the relevant issues that are much less known are the legal requirements and probable cause.

A search warrant gives law enforcement the authority to search your home, vehicle, or others areas they believe might have evidence of a crime, but there are some restrictions.

It’s important to have a clear understanding on the rules, regulations, and defenses for California search warrants.

Probable cause

First, police must request a search warrant from judge by convincing them to issue the warrant by providing them with “probable cause,” meaning:

  • they have reason to believe that evidence related to a crime, or;
  • someone who allegedly committed a crime;
  • is at the location they are seeking to search.

What Must Be Described in a Search Warrant?

In order for a California search warrant to be legal, it has to specifically describe the:

  • place to be searched; and
  • the person or items that will be seized if they are located.
Search Warrants Laws in California

Police must convince a judge they have probable cause before a search warrant is issued.

This means that California search warrants are legally required to be specific and law enforcement can’t beyond what the judge authorized.

plain view exception 

There is a plain view exception to this search warrant rule. Illegal Items can be seized during a legal search if they are in “plain view” while the search occurs.

For example, if law enforcement enters your home with a legal search warrant to seek for cocaine, but rather find in plain view methamphetamine on the kitchen counter, they can seize and use it against you in court.

felony probation or parole

Also, law enforcement doesn’t need a California search warrant from a judge if you are on felony probation or parole.

This is because that as a standard condition of being on probation or parole is that you forfeit your legal right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures.

How is a California Search Warrant Issued?

 A judge or magistrate signs a search warrant on behalf of the state of California. However, the warrant is represented by local DA’s office and executed by law enforcement as defined under California Penal Code 1523 PC.

It should be noted that before a judge will sign a search warrant, there are several requirements that must be satisfied, such as:

  • the judge must be reasonably convinced by a prosecutor and police that a crime was committed, and;
  • evidence of the crime will likely be located at the location listed in their search warrant application.

The primary purpose of getting a judge to approve a search warrant is to ensure a neutral party can evaluate the facts and circumstances before determining whether to issue the warrant.

Requirements for a search warrant

In order to obtain a California search warrant, there are requirements that must be met that are commonly known as the “grounds” for issuance of the warrant.

Some factors that will give a judge justification to issue a search warrant at a property include:

  • when the property has evidence that a felony crime occurred or will be used to commit a crime;
  • when the property uncovers child pornography;
  • when someone with an active warrant is at the property.

Police must show there is probable cause when they apply for a search warrant.

What is Probable Cause?

Most readers are familiar with the term “probable cause,” but what does it mean? It’s the standard of proof by which law enforcement has:

  • sufficient grounds arrest a person,
  • conduct a property or personal search, or
  • to obtain an arrest warrant.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone the right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure.

A judge won’t typically approve a search warrant unless they have a reasonable belief the person or property listed on the application will be found at the location to be searched.

Judge determining probable cause

This means the judge will need to determine whether sufficient probable cause exist to issue the search warrant. So, the judge can ask questions to the:

  • police officer,
  • prosecutor, or
  • police detective who applied for the search warrant,
  • any witnesses that were used as reliable information.

The judge could also ask information received from an informant, who police frequently use to get crucial information for a search warrant.

In order for a judge to approve and sign-off on a California search warrant, they must be shown facts and evidence, not just a police officer’s opinion on alleged criminal activity.

The judge is responsible for determining whether there is enough probable cause to approve a search warrant. They will need to be convinced the information for the warrant is reliable.

Execution of a California Search Warrant

 Once the search warrant has been issued by the judge, it must be executed within 10 days, or it is voided.

There are guidelines that must be followed, for example a search warrant must be executed during normal business hours, when practical.

Good cause 

However, the judge could allow a search at any time of day or night if they find “good cause,” which means there are facts to support night time execution of the search warrant is justified based on the specific circumstances.

It should be noted the judge will always consider public safety when deciding whether to allow a night time search.

Seized property 

In most cases, law enforcement will seize some property as a result of executing a search warrant.

They must leave a receipt to the individual that includes a detailed description of all the that was property seized.

If there is nobody at the search location, they must place a receipt where the property was found as described under California Penal Code 1535 PC.

The seized property must then be kept in the custody of law enforcement until it can be presented in court later.

Motion to Suppress Evidence – Penal Code 1538.5 PC

One of the most common ways for a criminal lawyer to challenge a California search warrant is a motion to suppress evidence defined under Penal Code 1538.5 PC.

In other words, it’s an attempt to exclude seized evidence from being used against you in court. An unreasonable search and seizure motion can be filed due to:

  • lack of probable cause to issue the search warrant;
  • search warrant was insufficient on its face;
  • evidence seized was not described in the search warrant;
  • illegal execution of the search warrant.

If the motion is successful, the evidence found and seized will typically be excluded, meaning the prosecutor can’t use it against you. In most cases, they will be forced to either reduce or dismiss the charges.

Criminal Defense for California Crimes

If you were involved in a California search warrant, contact our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers to review the details.Criminal Defense for California Crimes

The Fourth Amendment on the U.S. Constitution gives you the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures.

We might may be able to prove police unlawfully seized items during a search and prevent them from being used against you.

If you were the target of a search warrant in Los Angeles County, you need to understand your legal rights in order to protect your freedom.

Hedding Law Firm is a top-ranked criminal defense law firm representing clients throughout Southern California, including Los Angeles County, Orange County, Venture County, Santa Barbara County, Riverside and San Bernardino.

We are located at 16000 Ventura Blvd #1208 Encino, CA 91436.

Contact our office for a free case consultation at (213) 374-3952.

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Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ.

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