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Search Warrants in Washington State

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The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects Washington residents from unreasonable searches and seizures. To protect citizens’ rights, the state has several laws in place requiring law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant from a judge or magistrate prior to conducting a search.

Unfortunately, not all officers adhere to these laws, conducting searches without the proper documentation or probably cause. If you are subject to an investigation by the police, it is important to know what your rights are and how to identify an illegal search.

Basic Rules of Search Warrants

A search warrant is a court order that essentially authorizes the police to conduct a search on a person, in a certain location, or within a vehicle. The purpose of this document is to allow police to search for and seize criminal evidence for an open investigation. The warrant will define the scope of the search, including the locations the police can legally search or the items they are looking for.

For a judge to issue a search warrant, the police will need to establish that probable cause is present. The police must have reasonable grounds to conduct the search, such as evidence or observations the officers collected or information a reliable informant provided. If a search takes place without a warrant, the court will deem it to be unreasonable and therefore unlawful unless the search meets certain criteria.

When Can the Police Issue a Search Warrant?

Only an authorized judge or magistrate can issue a Washington search warrant. However, there are several instances where a police officer may conduct a search without a warrant.

  • An occupant of the property provides valid consent for the search.
  • Evidence, such as illegal drugs or weapons, is in plain view of the officer.
  • An emergency situation requires prompt intervention, such as an injured person.
  • The search is related to an arrest, limited to the body of the arrestee and the area within his or her control.

Consequences of an Illegal Search

According to RCW 10.79.040, it is illegal for a police officer or any other peace officer to conduct a search without a proper warrant. An officer cannot enter or search any private dwelling or place of residence without this document, and if the officer breaks this law, he or she may be guilty of a gross misdemeanor.

Washington law does not prescribe any specific punishment for illegal police searches, so this crime falls under the authority of RCW 9.92.020. This statute sets penalties for gross misdemeanors that do not have a fixed penalty, and a convicted officer may face the following consequences.

  • Imprisonment in county jail for up to 364 days; and/or
  • A fine of up to $5,000.

If you suspect that a police officer involved in your case conducted an illegal search, contact a criminal defense attorney for assistance. Your lawyer will understand the legal requirements of a search warrant and will launch an investigation. If he or she discovers that the officer executed a search without this court order, your lawyer may be able use this evidence to reduce or dismiss your charges. Contact your attorney as soon as possible to begin this investigation.

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