The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects people against warrantless searches of their persons, papers and homes. The law requires police to possess a valid warrant when searching a home for evidence, unless they act within one of the exceptions created by the courts. In order for the police to obtain a valid warrant, the police must have probable cause and specifically describe the place to be searched and items they want to seize.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals found a search invalid where the police failed to properly describe the area where they seized evidence in the search warrant. In New Mexico v. Hamilton, the police obtained a warrant to search the defendant's home. The warrant described the place to be searched as "a residence," more specifically as "a red stucco single level home with turquoise trim."
The police executed the warrant, and soon witnessed the defendant and his brother exiting a detached guesthouse located in the backyard area of the main house. The defendant and his brother were detained while drug-sniffing dogs searched both the main house and the guesthouse. The dogs alerted the police during the sniff of the guesthouse. The police then searched the guesthouse leading them to evidence upon which the defendant was charged.
The Fourth Amendment exists to prevent the police from searching people and places without cause. The courts have limited the police's authority to search, which ensures that the search will be carefully tailored and will not be a general search that the Constitution prohibits.
The area encompassing the "home" may extend beyond the walls of the home, and is sometimes referred to as the "curtilage." The Fourth Amendment does extend to protect the curtilage. There is no set definition of curtilage, but several factors are considered by the courts. However, it is clear that where the police want to search two houses, they are required to provide probable cause to each, and specifically describe the residences and things they wish to seize.
In the Hamilton case, the warrant did not mention the separate guesthouse. The main house and guesthouse were owned as a common unit, but the defendant used the guesthouse as a separate residence. In addition, the guesthouse had been rented out to tenants in the past, and it formerly had a different address.
The State argued that the guesthouse was part of the main house, due to its close proximity. However, the evidence showed that the guesthouse was, in fact, a separate residence. As a separate residence, it cannot be considered as part of the main house because it contains the intimate activities of its own respective occupants. The simple fact that an adult child lives closely to his parents, even when they are both allowed access to both homes, does not make the two residences one.
The contents of a warrant are very important. A defective warrant will result in the suppression of evidence. If this is the only evidence of a crime, then the prosecutor would have a difficult time at best moving forward. It is important to discuss these matters with your criminal defense attorney. Evidentiary suppression issues are often the best line of defense against criminal charges.
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