What are the Grounds for a Search Warrant in Georgia?

Grounds for a Search Warrant

When officers show up at your home or office with a search warrant it can be intimidating. You may not understand your constitutional rights regarding search and seizure laws, or how to enforce them. Understanding the grounds for a search warrant in Georgia, and what will happen after the warrant is issued can help you protect your rights and avoid additional criminal charges for obstructing a police investigation.

What is a Search Warrant?

A search warrant is a court order to allow a law enforcement officer to search a specific place, vehicle, or person and seize (take possession of) designated items. The Georgia search warrant requirements state that a complaint for a search warrant must be certified by a law enforcement officer under oath (using an affidavit). It must state that the officer has probable cause to believe:

  • That a crime is or has been committed
  • That the place, vehicle, or person in question is likely to have property or evidence related to the crime

A search warrant can authorize the seizure of:

  • Instruments, articles, things, or papers intended or used in the commission of the crime
  • Stolen or embezzled property
  • Contraband or property that cannot be legally possessed (such as drugs)
  • Kidnapped people (including those taken over state lines)
  • Evidence of the crime (including digital records or data)

The search warrant must be signed by a judge or magistrate before the search can be executed and the items seized. Each county has a qualified person on call 24 hours a day to authorize law enforcement officers' search warrants on short notice.

What are the Grounds for a Search Warrant?

A petition for a search warrant must also state specific facts to show the grounds for that officer’s belief that probable cause is present to authorize the search. Generally, the police officer must disclose some of their investigation leading up to that point. They must show that it is more likely than not that they will find the items they are hoping to seize at the location described, and that there is criminal activity involved.

How is a Search Warrant Executed in Georgia?

Once police officers have a search warrant, they are allowed to use “all necessary and reasonable force” to enter the designated property or vehicle after giving verbal notice. In most cases, the officer must knock on the door, announce that they are a police officer there to execute a search warrant, and wait at least a short amount of time to allow you to respond.

However, that may be as little as several seconds if the police believe a longer delay could give you time to destroy evidence. It is a good idea to verbally confirm that you have heard the officer through the door and ask them to wait if you need to put on a coat or secure an animal. Even then, do so as quickly as possible to avoid officers taking entry into their own hands.

Also, if the police officer’s complaint for a search warrant says that announcing the officer’s presence could be dangerous or futile, the magistrate or judge can authorize a “no-knock search warrant.” This excuses officers from announcing their presence.

Once the officers are inside the property described in the search warrant, they have the authority to search that property and to seize the items listed, as well as any other illegal objects or evidence of a crime they find.

When is Warrantless Search and Seizure Legal?

Police don’t need a search warrant in every case. There are many exceptions to the Fourth Amendment search warrant requirement. Some of the most common legal warrantless searches and seizures are:

  • Consent: If someone with authority agrees to let the police search the home or vehicle. Respectfully and clearly state you do not consent to any search during a traffic stop or if the police come to your home without a warrant.
  • Plain View: Police can seize suspicious items or contraband that they can see while in a place they are legally allowed to be. This is why it is wise to speak to police outside your home with the door closed, even if it is cold or raining.
  • “Plain Feel” or “Stop and Frisk”: Police can stop you and ask you questions as part of an investigation. In the process they can perform a pat-down for weapons. If the officer suspects an item is a weapon or is suspicious and the officer can “plainly feel” the item and determine it is an illegal item, they can seize it. For example, if the officer, during a pat down search, feels material that is clearly contained in a plastic bag, the officer will likely seize the item and state that based on their opinion and the “plain feel” doctrine they ascertained the item was an illegal drug. If you are not armed, say so. It can be used later to argue there was no reasonable belief that you had a weapon to require the search.
  • Upon Arrest: When you are arrested, police can search the area immediately around you. However, if your arrest was unlawful, the results of this search may be illegal too.
  • Hot Pursuit: If the police follow you somewhere private while you are trying to escape, they can search the area where they find you.
  • Exigent Circumstances: In general, if there is an emergency that threatens a person’s life or property, it can create an exception to the warrant requirement.
  • Automobile Exception: A century-old Supreme Court case says that vehicles themselves create an emergency circumstance allowing police to search the vehicle without a warrant if the officer has probable cause to believe a crime is being committed and evidence of the crime is located in the vehicle.

What to Do if You are the Subject of an Illegal Search and Seizure

Knowing whether police need a warrant, when there are grounds for a search warrant, and whether that warrant is properly executed is clearly complicated. If you believe your constitutional rights have been violated, you should respectfully state your objection to the search and then talk to a criminal defense attorney about the police actions. An illegal search or seizure can cause the evidence obtained to be excluded from your case. Often, this will result in the charges being dropped entirely. Every case is different when it comes to the seizure of evidence with or without a warrant. Whether issues are present in the search and seizure depends on the facts of the individual case. It is best to not assume that the search was legal or proper.

If you are facing a police investigation in Georgia, or if law enforcement has executed a search warrant at your home or workplace, it is important to contact a criminal defense lawyer right away to begin to build your defense. At the McCoy Law Firm, LLC, our experienced criminal defense attorneys understand Georgia search and seizure laws. We will review the police’s actions and use their mistakes to your advantage. If you have been charged with a crime, please contact Criminal & DUI Law of Georgia so we can begin working on your case right away.

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Categories: Criminal Defense