Law enforcement seek search warrants in order to search for and seize evidence of a crime. Search warrants have constitutional roots and implications. Although a search warrant permits law enforcement to search for and seize a particular item or contraband within property, law enforcement cannot use a search warrant to search your property without a clear purpose.
As mentioned earlier, search warrants are subject to constitutional requirements and are also governed by the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure.
Authority to Issue a Search Warrant
Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 200 provides that a search warrant may be issued by any issuing authority within the judicial district where either the person or place to be searched is located. This rule applies to magisterial district judges, and judges of the Common Pleas, Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme Courts. Only Common Pleas court judges and appellate court judges and justices may issue search warrants when the supporting affidavit is to be sealed.
What May be Searched for and Seized?
Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 201 provides that a search warrant may be issued to search for and seize the following:
- contraband, the fruits of a crime, or things otherwise criminally possessed; or
- property that is or has been used as the means of committing a criminal offense; or
- property that constitutes evidence of the commission of a criminal offense.
A search warrant may not be issued unless the supporting affidavit of probable cause alleges the commission of a crime.
The Probable Cause Standard
Per Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 203, no search warrant may be issued but upon probable cause supported by one or more affidavits sworn to before the issuing authority in person or using advanced communication technology. The issuing authority, in determining whether probable cause has been established, may not consider any evidence outside the affidavits. This is referred to as the "four corners rule," and often provides a ground for filing a suppression motion.
The search warrant may not authorize a nighttime search unless the affidavit of probable cause show reasonable cause for a nighttime search. Rule 205(5) uses the hours of 10p.m. to 6a.m. when defining nighttime.
Specifics of the Search Warrant
Every search warrant must be signed by the issuing authority and shall:
(1) specify the date and time of issuance;
(2) identify specifically the property to be seized;
(3) name or describe with particularity the person or place to be searched;
(4) direct that the search be executed either;
(a) within a specified period of time, not to exceed 2 days from the time of issuance, or;
(b) when the warrant is issued for a prospective event, only after the specified event has occurred;
(5) direct that the warrant be served in the daytime unless otherwise authorized on the warrant, provided that, for purposes of the rules of Chapter 200, Part A, the term ‘‘daytime'' shall be used to mean the hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.;
(6) designate by title the judicial officer to whom the warrant shall be returned;
(7) certify that the issuing authority has found probable cause based upon the facts sworn to or affirmed before the issuing authority by written affidavit(s) attached to the warrant; and
(8) when applicable, certify on the face of the warrant that for good cause shown the affidavit(s) is sealed pursuant to Rule 211 and state the length of time the affidavit(s) will be sealed.
(B) A warrant under paragraph (A) may authorize the seizure of electronic storage media or of electronically stored information. Unless otherwise specified, the warrant authorizes a later review of the media or information consistent with the warrant. The time for executing the warrant in (A)(4)(a) refers to the seizure of the media or information, and not to any later off-site copying or review.
Contents of Search Warrant
The contents of an application for a search warrant are provided for in Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 206. The rule provides that each application for a search warrant shall be supported by written affidavit(s) signed and sworn to or affirmed before an issuing authority, which affidavit(s) shall:
(1) state the name and department, agency, or address of the affiant;
(2) identify specifically the items or property to be searched for and seized;
(3) name or describe with particularity the person or place to be searched;
(4) identify the owner, occupant, or possessor of the place to be searched;
(5) specify or describe the crime which has been or is being committed;
(6) set forth specifically the facts and circumstances which form the basis for the affiant's conclusion that there is probable cause to believe that the items or property identified are evidence or the fruit of a crime, or are contraband, or are expected to be otherwise unlawfully possessed or subject to seizure, and that these items or property are or are expected to be located on the particular person or at the particular place described;
(7) if a ‘‘nighttime'' search is requested (i.e., 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.), state additional reasonable cause for seeking permission to search in nighttime;
(8) when the attorney for the Commonwealth is requesting that the affidavit(s) be sealed pursuant to Rule 211, state the facts and circumstances which are alleged to establish good cause for the sealing of the affidavit(s); and
(9) a certification that the application complies with the provisions of the Case Records Public Access Policy of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania regarding confidential information and documents.
There is no specific form required for written affidavit by rule.
Executing the Warrant
Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 207 provides for the manner of entry into the premises. It provides:
(A) A law enforcement officer executing a search warrant shall, before entry, give, or make reasonable effort to give, notice of the officer's identity, authority, and purpose to any occupant of the premises specified in the warrant, unless exigent circumstances require the officer's immediate forcible entry.
(B) Such officer shall await a response for a reasonable period of time after this announcement of identity, authority, and purpose, unless exigent circumstances require the officer's immediate forcible entry.
(C) If the officer is not admitted after such reasonable period, the officer may forcibly enter the premises and may use as much physical force to effect entry therein as is necessary to execute the search.
This rule provides what has come to be known as the "knock and announce" requirement.
Defendant Entitled to Copy of Search Warrant
When the police take property pursuant to a search warrant, Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 208 requires that they leave with the person from whom or from whose premises the property was taken a copy of the warrant and affidavit(s) of probable cause, and a receipt for the property taken, known as an inventory. A copy of the search warrant and affidavit(s) must be left whether or not any property is seized.
Sealing of Search Warrants
Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 211 provides for the sealing of search warrant affidavits. Rule 211 provides that at the request of the attorney for the Commonwealth, a search warrant affidavit may be sealed upon good cause shown.
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