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Tennessee expands good-faith exceptions to search warrants

When police arrived at your home with a search warrant, you may have had little time or attention to look it over carefully. Even if you did read the warrant, would you have understood the legal jargon or known if the warrant was valid? Chances are you skimmed the document looking for details about what the officers expected to find.

Search warrants are carefully regulated documents, which judges issue within the confines of laws that legislators passed to protect your rights. Unless you grant permission, an officer cannot come into your home to search without a warrant, and a judge will not issue a warrant unless he or she is convinced there is probable cause. 

In addition to that, everyone involved with issuing and executing the warrant must follow strict rules to ensure the search doesn't violate your rights. However, Tennessee recently loosened those rules.

What makes a search warrant valid?

It probably makes sense to you that there are obvious reasons why a warrant may be unconstitutional. For example, an officer may lie to a judge about the scope of the probable cause for the warrant. Officers may search properties or areas that the warrant does not permit. If this happens in your case, you would expect a judge to exclude any evidence investigators discover during the illegal search.

However, even the slightest clerical error can nullify a search warrant. For example, if an officer faxing the warrant accidentally cuts off his or her signature in the transmission, the warrant is no longer valid. If a clerk makes a typographical error or types a.m. instead of p.m., officers cannot execute the warrant legally.

Recently, Tennessee's Supreme Court ruled that judges may have more leniency in accepting evidence officers obtain with warrants containing these "good faith" errors.

Who protects your rights?

The purpose of tossing out evidence police garner with illegal or invalid search warrants is to keep law enforcement aware of the importance of protecting your rights when you face criminal charges.

By excluding evidence, a judge effectively punishes an officer who may have been sloppy in obtaining or executing the warrant. However, some feel that the courts don't serve justice when they exclude evidence because of a typographical error or an honest mistake.

A judge must believe that the officer did not intend to violate your rights and that any mistake on the warrant was innocent. The questions that may concern you are how far the court is willing to go in making these exceptions, and how you can be sure your rights will be protected throughout the judicial process.

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Mark Scruggs, Trial Attorney
95 White Bridge Rd. Ste 508
Nashville, TN 37205

Phone: 615-988-4128
Fax: 615-356-6954
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