Will a “No Trespassing” Sign Protect a Roommate from a Search Warrant?

When someone living in a shared home is served with a search warrant for their residence, another roommate may have their private room explored as well, even if a “No Trespassing” sign is posted.

State v. Boyles

Search Warrant

Photo by: Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office

When law enforcement officials began a search on the home of James Fitts who they had under investigation, they were unaware that a locked room with a “No Trespassing” sign belonged to another roommate, Evan D. Boyles. After forcing their way into the locked private room, they discovered drug paraphernalia and arrested Boyles after he stated the room was his. Boyles attempted to have the evidence suppressed in court since Fitts was the target of the search warrant, however that motion was denied.

Vague search warrant

Photo by:  Nicolas Raymond

Photo by: Nicolas Raymond

Although officers may have known which bedroom belonged to Fitts, they claimed to be unaware that the “No Trespassing” sign meant a private room. Typically, a search warrant will specify which areas of a residence can be searched and what items are being located however the search warrant obtained for Fitts’ residence allowed officers to search every inch of that property. It stated “all outbuildings, garages, sheds, vehicles, trailers, boats, locked containers, and other property contained within the property lines (. . . )” could be searched.

Protection for roommates

Photo by: Jason Taellious

Photo by: Jason Taellious

Sharing a residence with others definitely has its ups and downs. While the cost of living may be decreased with more individuals splitting the bills, there is a diminished sense of privacy that comes with the territory. Just as labeling food in a fridge is common practice among roommates, clearly labeling private bedrooms can also be helpful in the unfortunate event that a search warrant is placed on the home. Had Boyles’ room stated that it was the “private room of Evan Boyles” instead of simply “No Trespassing” officers would have to be aware it was a separate residence. A more specific sign could have made the difference in whether or not Boyles’ charges were dropped. For more information on Fourth Amendment Rights regarding search and seizures, contact a criminal defense attorney.

Hearsay is Probable Cause for a Search Warrant

When a judge authorizes a search warrant, there has to be sufficient proof in the affidavit to attest probable cause; however is hearsay evidence enough to qualify?

Probable cause

Probable cause is required to obtain a search warrant. Probable cause can include the officer’s own observation such as: seeing illegal contraband through an open door while talking with a suspect; hearing loud noises presumed to be from a violent act taking place; and even smelling illegal activity such as marijuana smoke or other drug use. Beyond these observations made by the actual office, probable cause can also consist of hearsay – a statement overheard by a random witness.

Hearsay

Photo by: Francisco Osorio

Photo by: Francisco Osorio

According to Utah Courts Dictionary of Legal Terms, hearsay is “second-hand evidence, generally consisting of a witness’s testimony that he/she heard someone else say something.” Like a bad game of telephone, information by hearsay could end up muddled and far from the truth. Another concern with hearsay besides being an innocent misunderstanding is the fact that hearsay could be nothing more than a fabricated plot to cause undue stress on another person.

Protection from false info

To avoid untrue or mistaken information, there are certain steps that must be taken before a judge can accept hearsay. The following is Utahcourts.gov explanation how hearsay is evaluated and what is required for hearsay to be acceptable for a search warrant:

1. “Veracity” of the informer. This means the informer providing the hearsay must be credible. The affidavit must contain sufficient facts indicating the informer is believable or truthful. For example, the affidavit should state the reasons why the informer believes that the seizable items are located in the place to be searched and the reasons why the police officer believes that the informer is reliable.
o To satisfy the veracity test, the affidavit must establish that: (a) the informer is a truthful person; (b) the informer has a particular motive to be truthful about the specific allegation (for example, it is against the informer’s interest); or (c) the allegations of criminality are sufficiently corroborated.

2. “Basis of knowledge” of the informer. This means that the informer has a factual basis for the information furnished. The affidavit must contain sufficient facts indicating the basis for the informant’s knowledge. For example, the affidavit should describe the accused’s criminal activity in sufficient detail for the judge to determine that the allegation is something more substantial than casual rumor.
o To satisfy the basis of knowledge test, the affidavit must establish that: (a) the informer gathered the information of illegal activity in a reliable fashion; or (b) the informer’s information is based on either personal knowledge or on reliable hearsay received by the informer. “

Hearsay usually not admissible in court

Although there are some guidelines concerning what hearsay is considered valid, it is still an alarming thought that someone’s word is enough evidence for authorities to obtain a search warrant. Fortunately, hearsay statements typically won’t hold up later on in court. This is due to the defense being unable to cross examine the informant after the hearsay statement is admitted. The same would go for an anonymous tip. While that tip may lead officials in the right direction to catch a crime, there is no way to use it in court as the defendant would not be able to question the person accusing them of a crime. IF hearsay is allowed before the judge and/or jury, Utah Courts states that “the declarant’s credibility may be attacked, and then supported, by any evidence that would be admissible for those purposes if the declarant had testified as a witness.”

Speak with an attorney

For anyone facing charges for evidence obtained during a hearsay driven search warrant, it is crucial to contact a criminal defense attorney. An experienced defense attorney can help their clients fully understand their 4th Amendment rights regarding searches and seizures and what their rights are during trial.

Why a Warrant is issued

According to Utah courts, a warrant is “a written order issued and signed by a judge or magistrate which allows the police to search a place and seize specified items found there […] or to arrest or detain a specified person […]. There are different types of warrants issued by a judge and not all will result in an individual being arrested.

Bench Warrant

Photo by: West Midlands Police

Photo by: West Midlands Police

A bench warrant a type of warrant that is issued by the judge so that the individual can be located, arrested, and appear before the judge and explain why they:

• Didn’t show up to court. When someone is facing charges, they are required to show up to court on a set date to discuss the charges in front of a judge. If they aren’t put in jail initially or if they are out on bail, they may take the temporary freedom too lightly and either forget or choose not to show up when that date comes. When this happens, a bench warrant will be issued for failure to appear in court.

• Violated a court order. If an individual violates an order issued by the court or violates their probation, then a bench warrant can be issued for their arrest.

• Failed to pay their fines. Any fine related to a charge or ticket must be paid by the required date. If a person fails to pay their fines on time, this is another reason why a bench warrant will be issued for their arrest.

Arrest warrant

Just like a bench warrant, an arrest warrant gives law enforcement the right to detain a person and take them to jail until they can be seen by a judge. This is usually the case for individuals who are suspects in a crime.

Search Warrant

A search warrant is very different from a bench or arrest warrant as it doesn’t always end in an individual being arrested. A search warrant merely gives law enforcement the right to search a certain location.

Defense counsel

If a warrant is issued for a person’s arrest, it is wise to immediately seek a criminal defense attorney to represent the individual in court. Likewise, if a search warrant turns up anything that would result in criminal charges, defensive counsel is recommended.