Understanding Blanket Search Warrants: Implications and Legal Considerations

February 25, 2023
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In order to establish probable cause, law enforcement officials must present a Judge or Magistrate with enough evidence to demonstrate that there is a reasonable likelihood that evidence related to a crime will be found in the location to be searched. The search warrant document must include or refer to the specific items to be seized. Blanket search warrants are a topic of legal significance, as they grant law enforcement agencies the authority to conduct searches without specifying the exact items they are seeking.

When it comes to writing search warrants for a residence or a person, specifying the items to be seized is usually simple and straightforward. However, when officers begin drafting warrants for technology or situations with which they are unfamiliar, they may fall into the “any and all” trap.

Defining Blanket Search Warrants:
A blanket search warrant refers to a broad authorization granted by a judge that allows law enforcement to search multiple areas for evidence without specifying the exact items they are looking for. Unlike specific search warrants that provide detailed information about the place to be searched and the items to be seized, blanket search warrants lack the required particularity.
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution safeguards individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. It establishes the requirement that search warrants be supported by probable cause and describe with specificity the place to be searched and the items to be seized. Blanket search warrants raise concerns regarding their compliance with the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement.
Critics argue that blanket search warrants can infringe upon individuals’ privacy rights. These warrants provide broad authorization to search and seize items, potentially leading to indiscriminate searches and violations of privacy. Concerns arise due to the lack of specificity, making it difficult to determine the scope and limits of the search.

Stanford v. Texas:
In the landmark case of Stanford v. Texas, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of blanket search warrants. The court held that such warrants, which fail to specify the items to be seized or the places to be searched, are unconstitutional and violate the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. This case reinforces the importance of ensuring specificity in search warrants to protect individuals’ privacy rights.

Overly broad blanket search warrants

Regarding searches for records, some states have enacted laws to discourage overly broad warrants for electronic records by requiring specific date ranges or the retention of only those records related to the crime, such as California’s ECPA. Nonetheless, it is typical to see the terms “any” and “all” in the description of items to be searched. These terms are often included in search warrants in order to gather all potential evidence in a case. While the intention is commendable, the broad request may gather more records than the Officer anticipated. The “everything and the kitchen sink” approach can cause unexpected complications for the case down the line. Additionally, the presence of any and all in your search warrant document can call into question the scope of the warrant and lead to allegations of Officers being on a “fishing expedition”.

All documents showing any bank credit agreement with, or any credit extended by the Navy Federal Credit Union to the account holder to cover overdrafts of checks drawn on said account.

I collected everything, now what?

The price you pay for collecting everything, is reviewing everything. The Brady v. Maryland decision outlines the duty of all law enforcement agencies to identify and provide to the prosecution any exculpatory material that would have a reasonable probability of altering the results in a trial, or any material that could reasonably mitigate the sentencing of a defendant. That means that if your Facebook warrant return is 4,000 pages long, you need to review all 4,000 pages.

Striking a balance between what can be collected and what needs to be collected can be difficult. Here are the top three suggestions for avoiding any and all warrants:

  1. Clearly define the scope of the search: When preparing a search warrant, it’s essential to clearly define the scope of the search. This means identifying the location to be searched, the items to be seized, and any limitations or restrictions that should be placed on the search. By being specific and clear in your warrant application, you can avoid broad and intrusive searches.
  2. Provide a detailed description of the evidence sought: It’s also crucial to provide a detailed description of the evidence sought in the search warrant application. This will help to ensure that the search is narrowly tailored and does not exceed its authorized scope. The more specific and detailed the description of the evidence, the more likely it is that the search will be limited to only the evidence described.
  3. Use precise language: When drafting a search warrant, it’s important to use precise and unambiguous language. This means avoiding vague or general terms and instead using specific language that accurately describes the evidence sought and the scope of the search.

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