Back in Colonial times, the British would sometime exercise “general warrants” where they searched houses in the U.S. These intrusive searches were viewed as unlawful and were one factor that contributed to the Revolutionary War efforts. In the U.S. Constitution, this protection was addressed in the Fourth Amendment, and each state did the same when they drafted each of their respective constitutional documents. Rhode Island addressed search warrants in Article-1, Section-6.
Search warrants are issued by court judges when probable cause exists. Probable cause should be based on unbiased facts that justify issuing a warrant. In Duquette v. Godbout, an exception was created to allow for warrantless searches in emergency situations.
Grounds for Issuance
A search warrant may be used in the following way:
- For property stolen, embezzled, obtained using false pretenses or through fraud
- For property retained for purposes that violate the law
- Property intended to be used to commit a violation of the law
- Evidence relating to a crime
- Blood, hair, or other bodily evidence to identify someone who committed a crime through scientific or forensic testing
- Blood or breath evidence to detect alcohol or presence of controlled substances.
Timing Requirements for Seized Property
Within 14 days, all warrants, supporting materials, and an inventory of property obtained must be returned to the issuing court. This includes search warrants that were not executed. Seized property is securely maintained by the police under the direction of the court for evidentiary purposes. Items that were stolen or otherwise illegally obtained are to be returned to the party to whom they belong.
Depending on what the seized property is, you have rights to it once your case has concluded. The police don't get to keep your property, but you will have to request its release.
Home Searches & Circumstances for Exceptions
There are a few exceptions that allow warrantless intrusion to a home. When an officer enters a home, this itself is considered to be a search. Police may enter a home when they deem there to be an emergency or other exigent situation; however, the entry is solely to address the particular emergency and not to continue searching beyond that purpose.
The only other time a police officer can enter a home is if one of the following occurs:
- For personal safety
- For evidence preservation
- To prevent the escape of a suspect.
Remember: You do not have to permit access into your home if a police officer requests it. In fact, you do not have to open the door to an officer. The officer must have a search warrant, and absent it, you can politely advise him that you have other things to do.
Electronic Communication & Mobile Devices
When probable cause exists, a warrant can be used to obtain information sent or received by persons in Rhode Island from their electronic communication service providers. This may include data stored on a customer's behalf. Law enforcement is to protect the privacy of citizens when obtaining location data from cell phone providers. This information is used for determining someone's whereabouts, their activities, and who they are with. In recent years, excessive usage of this data expanded without much legal protection. Law enforcement began requesting data such as that which showed every individual who was in proximity to a given cell tower. The U.S. Senate determined that in 2013, AT&T received over 100,000 requests and Verizon had 30,000 requests for such information. Fortunately, Rhode Island now requires a search warrant for obtaining mobile device records.
As a resident of Rhode Island, it is important to know your rights. The police cannot inspect your home, seize your property or obtain your private electronic data without a search warrant. From the birth of our country until now, this right has been ours. The police cannot infringe on our rights without probable cause.