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Sometimes Color Matters in Search Warrants

Search warrants must specifically describe what property is authorized to be searched. Ambiguity can render the warrant invalid. In the recent case of State v. Spivey, W2010-01853-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 9-19-2011), a search warrant described a home with tan siding at a particular address. The search revealed crack cocaine, a digital scale, and a handgun. The problem was that there were two separate homes at that address. One had tan siding and one had blue siding. The police searched the blue one (which is the one they believed they had sought authorization to search). They searched the right home but had described the wrong one. The Defendants moved to suppress the evidence from the search. The trial court granted the motion. The State appealed. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court.

The police had an informant who had seen cocaine in the blue home at the address in question. The police reviewed property records and satellite photos to identify the place. They were aware there were two buildings but apparently thought one of them was unoccupied. And from the satellite photos they misread the color of the suspect house (or assumed it was the same as the other building). They did not conduct actual physical surveillance of the address to make sure they were describing it accurately (perhaps due to concern about alerting the residents to the investigation).

The police knew which building they wanted to search. They searched the right one. However, to authorize it, the search warrant must describe it in a way to limit the authorization to a specific place for which there is probable cause to search. In this case, the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals determined that the warrant would have authorized the search of the other occupied residence at the address, for which there was no probable cause to search. That made the warrant over-broad and invalid.

For more information on the validity of a search warrant, contact Hindman & Associates.

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