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What Should I Know About Search Warrants?


Search warrants are an integral part of a criminal investigation.

They assist in protecting the fundamental right to unreasonable searches and seizures, and create limitations on the places that criminal investigators are entitled to search. While there are exceptions, search warrants are the rule, and usually, an officer must have one before searching an area where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy (e.g., your home) for evidence of a potential crime.

The elements of valid search warrants include:

  • Probable Cause: 

    A search warrant must be supported by probable cause. Probable cause is typically established by an affidavit from the officer. The affidavit must state facts, not conclusions, in order to satisfy the probable cause requirement.  An affidavit may be based, in part, on information from a confidential informant.

  • Precision: 

    The warrant must be precise on its face and state with particularity the place to be searched and things to be seized.

  • Magistrate: 

    A neutral and detached judicial officer must issue the warrant. This would NOT include individuals like a District Attorney, U.S. Attorney, a person who gets paid only when warrants are issued, or a person who accompanies the police on a pre-warrant search.

  • Properly and Promptly Executed: 

    The search warrant must be executed within a certain time frame after the magistrate signs it.

If one or more of these four prongs is not satisfied, the search warrant is invalid, and any evidence that was discovered as a result of the search warrant must be suppressed. In other words, the jury may not consider the evidence when making a determination on the criminal defendant’s innocence or guilt. Typically, criminal defense attorneys argue that a search warrant is invalid because it does not satisfy the probable cause requirement due to insufficiencies in the officer’s affidavit.
In 1989, the Tennessee Supreme Court adopted a two-pronged analysis called the Aguilar-Spinelli test in order to determine whether an affidavit was sufficient.

Under this standard, when a confidential informant is involved,

  • the informant must have obtained his knowledge by personal observation in a dependable manner rather than through mere rumor; and
  • the officer must provide the magistrate with facts establishing either the informant’s credibility or the reliability of his information.  

This was a higher standard than was required by most states and placed a greater burden on officers to establish the credibility and facts of a confidential informant. At the time it was adopted, the Tennessee Supreme Court believed the test more accurately reflected the Fourth Amendment protections in the Tennessee Constitution.

Although Tennessee courts followed the Aguilar-Spinelli test for almost two decades, on April 7, 2017, the Tennessee Supreme Court overruled this standard in State v. Tuttle and adopted a less burdensome “totality of the circumstances” analysis. This standard, developed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Illinois v. Gates has been adopted by most states.  It permits courts to look at all of the circumstances surrounding the case in order to determine if the information provided by a confidential informant sufficiently establishes probable cause for a search warrant. In adopting the Gates standard, the court reasoned that it was likely to be applied less hyper-technically than the Aguilar-Spinelli standard and was consistent with the text of the Tennessee Constitution. Although the standard is less burdensome on officers, the court emphasized that knowledge and veracity remain relevant and important under the Gates standard.

If your home or vehicle has been recently searched and you are facing criminal charges, consult with the attorneys at Batson Nolan to determine whether the search was valid under the Gates standard and to assist you in resolving your criminal matter.  If you have more legal questions, contact us to be connected with the right attorney for all your legal needs. With hundreds of years of combined legal experience, we are committed to our clients and to achieving results that exceed expectations.