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What is the scope of a valid search warrant?

Pennsylvanians and others across the country who are under reasonable suspicion of committing a crime may be subject to search and seizure. Criminal defendants are innocent until proven guilty and are shielded from unreasonable searches and seizures by the Fourth Amendment. Any evidence that is obtained from an unlawful search and seizure is considered "fruit of the poisonous tree" and cannot be introduced in court.

Generally, law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to conduct a search of a person or premise without their consent. There are certain requirements that must be met in order to obtain a search warrant and there are limitations to the manner in which the search may be conducted.

Prior to conducting a search of a suspected individual or their premises, law enforcement must obtain permission from the court. They must be able to show that there is probable cause that a crime occurred, and that evidence linked to that crime will probably be found on the person or property. This may be accomplished by providing credible information to the judge, either through firsthand observations or the reliable observations of an informant. After law enforcement makes this minimum showing, the judge will decide whether to grant a search warrant.

If a search warrant is issued, law enforcement will be restricted to searching the areas listed on the warrant unless they are ensuring their own safety or the safety of others. Law enforcement may search additional areas to stop the destruction of evidence or to locate additional evidence implicated during the initial search. Any evidence that is in plain view, even if outside the scope of the search warrant, may also be legally seized as evidence against criminal defendants. There are some exceptions to the requirement that law enforcement obtain search warrants to conduct searches; these will be discussed in a future post.

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