All Americans have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This is so fundamental to our liberty that the Founding Fathers made it the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

As a result, federal search warrants can only be issued in very narrow circumstances.

If a federal law enforcement agency (such as the FBI or DEA) believes that a piece of private property was involved in the commission of a federal crime, they can request a search warrant from a judge. The search warrant gives officers the right to search a location or person for evidence connected to the alleged crime and seize anything that could be useful to their investigation.

For a search warrant to be issued, the agency must convince a magistrate judge that there is “probable cause” to believe the property was involved in the crime.

If the agency stretched the truth when obtaining the warrant — even if the search revealed evidence that connected the defendant to the alleged crime — then it was an illegal search and seizure, and any evidence obtained in the search will be inadmissible in court.

To challenge a search warrant in federal court, your criminal defense attorney will need to file a Franks motion on your behalf. In this guide, we’ll share some details about how federal search warrants work and how you can challenge them through Franks motions and hearings.

If you need help with a specific situation, the Helfend Law Group is here to help. With more than 30 years fighting for the rights of the accused in federal courts, attorney Robert M. Helfend has what it takes to defend your freedom. Call for your free case evaluation – 800-834-6434.

Understanding how federal search warrants work

Before we get into the specifics of Franks motions and hearings, let’s examine federal search warrants.

Both state and federal governments have the authority to issue warrants for search and seizure. State-issued search warrants involve alleged violations of state laws and are issued to local law enforcement officers by state judges.

Conversely, federal search warrants apply in cases of federal jurisdiction:

  • Authorities believe a federal law has been broken
  • The alleged offense crossed state lines
  • The alleged offense occurred on federal property, at an airport or on an airplane

In order to obtain a search warrant from a federal magistrate judge, a federal official must produce a search warrant affidavit that presents evidence that a piece of property should be searched. This can take the form of:

  • Physical evidence
  • Sworn testimony, or testimony that occurs over a phone or electronic device

The judge will make a determination of whether or not the official presented probable cause to justify the warrant. Probable cause is a legal standard that demands sufficient facts to lead a reasonable person to believe that (1) a crime has been committed, and that (2) specific items related to that crime are likely to be found in the place to be searched.

Probable cause requires more than mere suspicion. The official must show specific, concrete reasons to justify the search.

Once the search warrant is issued, law enforcement officials have 14 days to execute the warrant. It depends on the specifics of the case, but they tend to move very quickly when executing their search.

Law enforcement officers work quickly — sometimes too quickly

Federal agencies often operate under the premise of urgency, particularly in situations where there is a palpable risk of evidence being destroyed. This urgency is driven by the transient nature of certain types of evidence, especially in the digital age where data can be swiftly deleted or encrypted.

Federal agencies are aware that delays in executing search warrants can lead to the permanent loss of crucial evidence. Therefore, when they believe that immediate action is necessary to preserve evidence, they may expedite the process of obtaining and executing search warrants.

This haste, however, comes with its own set of challenges and responsibilities. While rapid action is sometimes necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence, this can lead to mistakes or issues in the process. In an effort to obtain a warrant as quickly as possible, a federal agency might overstate or misstate the evidence in their search warrant affidavit.

When this happens, the defendant can challenge the warrant’s legality through a Franks motion.

Using a Franks motion and hearing to challenge an illegal search warrant

Let’s delve into the core of this guide: Challenging federal search warrants through Franks motions and hearings.

A Franks motion is a legal maneuver named after the landmark Supreme Court case, Franks v. Delaware (1978). This case established the right to challenge the validity of a search warrant based on the veracity of the affidavit supporting it.

For a Franks motion to be granted by a court, it must show

  • False statements or omissions – The defendant must show that the affidavit supporting the search warrant contained false statements or omitted material facts.
  • Intentional or reckless disregard for the truth – The affiant (the person who gave the affidavit) either knowingly lied or showed reckless disregard for the truth.
  • Material impact on probable cause – The defendant must prove that these falsehoods or omissions by the federal police officer were material to the finding of probable cause. In other words, without these inaccuracies, the warrant would not have been issued.

If the court finds merit in the Franks motion, it will grant a Franks hearing. This is an evidentiary hearing where the defense has the opportunity to “traverse the warrant.” The defense can challenge the truth of the warrant to prove the allegations of falsehood or reckless disregard by the law enforcement officer in the affidavit. The burden of proof lies on the defendant.

During a Franks hearing, various types of evidence can be presented, including testimony from witnesses, affidavits and other documentary evidence. If the defense successfully demonstrates the invalidity of the warrant due to false or misleading information in the affidavit, any evidence obtained from that search can be suppressed, meaning it cannot be used against the defendant in court.

It’s crucial to note that Franks motions and hearings are complex legal processes that require a deep understanding of constitutional law and criminal procedure. They are not commonly granted, and proving such a claim is challenging.

This underscores the importance of having an experienced federal criminal defense attorney to navigate these intricate legal waters for you.

What happens if a Franks hearing is successful?

If a Franks hearing is successful, it can be a pivotal victory for the defense. The success of a Franks hearing means that the search warrant contained false statements or significant omissions, and these inaccuracies were material to the establishment of probable cause.

As a consequence, the search warrant is deemed invalid and any evidence seized in the search will be suppressed. In legal terms, this is often referred to as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine, which states that evidence derived from an illegal search or seizure is typically inadmissible in court.

The successful outcome of a Franks hearing can drastically alter the trajectory of a criminal case. Without the evidence obtained from the invalidated search, the prosecution may find its case significantly weakened, sometimes to the point where they may not have enough evidence to proceed. This can result in the reduction or dismissal of charges against the defendant.

The Fourth Amendment is a cornerstone of American liberties, safeguarding citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Its protection is paramount in ensuring your rights are not infringed upon during legal proceedings. If you’re facing a situation where these rights might be at risk, it’s crucial to seek legal counsel.

That’s where the Helfend Law Group comes in.

Attorney Robert M. Helfend has dedicated over 30 years to defending the rights of those accused in federal courts. His expertise and commitment to justice have not gone unnoticed. Mr. Helfend has earned recognition from prestigious organizations such as SuperLawyers, the National Trial Lawyers Top 100, and Lead Counsel. This recognition is a testament to his skill, dedication, and success in defending his clients.

At the Helfend Law Group, we understand the complexities of the legal system and the nuances of the Fourth Amendment. Whether you’re challenging a search warrant, facing federal charges or simply seeking guidance on your rights, attorney Robert M. Helfend is here to provide the support and expertise you need. We offer free consultations, allowing you to discuss your case without any financial obligation. What’s more, we are available 24/7, ensuring that you can reach out for legal assistance at any time.

Don’t let your rights be compromised. Call the Helfend Law Group at 800-834-6434 to safeguard your Fourth Amendment rights and get the expert legal help your case deserves.