You may see it in movies or crime dramas on television. A group of FBI agents descends upon a person’s business or office. One agent hands the business owner a warrant in some type of envelope, then the agents proceed to haul away boxes of documents, computers and even servers, all while the stunned business owner stands helplessly by.
Sometimes life imitates art when authorities execute search warrants in the midst of a fraud investigation. While acting upon what they might believe is a proper warrant, law enforcement officers may seize documents and property that exceed the scope of the warrant. After all, incriminating documents are not readily (or sometimes easily) identifiable, unlike guns or drugs.
This is why the Fourth Amendment is critical in defending against improper searches, even when based on a search warrant. From a historical standpoint, warrants have evolved over time as documents and digital files have become more sophisticated, yet the requirements have stayed the same. A proper warrant requires the substance of the search to be detailed with particularity. This is especially important considering that prosecutors may consider almost any document to be relevant in a fraud investigation.
As such, a proper warrant should identify the specific crimes allegedly committed and which records or documents could be attributed to them. This way, the search can be reasonably confined to relevant records and alleviate the need to hijack entire computers, servers and document storage systems.
Indeed, striking this balance is not easy, and a warrant could be invalidated for being too vague and impossible to enforce. As such, if you have questions about how to respond to a search warrant, an experienced white collar crimes defense attorney can advise you.