Search Warrants in Tennessee: What You Need To Know

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

Barnes & Fersten Law Firm

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Two police officers knocking on a front door

Can law enforcement in Tennessee search your home or vehicle without your explicit consent? What are your legal options if you’re facing a search warrant or a sudden vehicle search? Understanding your rights in these scenarios is a vital aspect of safeguarding your privacy and freedoms.

In this blog we’ll explore the legalities surrounding search warrants in Tennessee, from the threshold of your home to the confines of your car. We’ll delve into your individual rights and the procedures that law enforcement must follow, as well as how to respond if your rights are challenged.

Understanding Search Warrants

A search warrant is a legal document authorized by a court, granting law enforcement the power to search a specific location and seize evidence related to a crime. The legal basis for search warrants is grounded in both the U.S. Constitution and state law. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, requiring that a search warrant be issued based on probable cause.

Tennessee law also upholds these constitutional standards. Under the Tennessee Code, search warrants must be issued by a neutral and detached magistrate or judge and are only granted when there is sufficient evidence to believe that a crime has been committed or that evidence of a crime can be found in a particular place.

Criteria for Issuing a Search Warrant

In Tennessee, several key criteria must be met for a search warrant to be legally issued:

  • Probable Cause: This is the foundational requirement for a search warrant. It implies that there is a reasonable basis, supported by facts and circumstances, to believe that a crime has been committed and that evidence pertinent to the crime is likely to be found in the place specified in the warrant. Probable cause is a higher burden than reasonable doubt and requires specific and articulable facts that makes it more likely than not that the search will result in the State finding evidence against the accused.

  • Specificity: The search warrant must explicitly detail the specific location to be searched and the items or evidence sought. This precision is necessary to prevent broad or indiscriminate searches and to ensure that the search is strictly related to the particular criminal investigation. This is also many times grounds for our defense attorneys to challenge pieces of evidence that were not covered in the location of the search.

  • Oath or Affirmation: The application for a search warrant must be made under oath or with a sworn affirmation. Typically, this involves a written affidavit presented to a judge or magistrate, detailing the facts and evidence that justify the need for the search warrant.

Types of Search Warrants

Different types of search warrants are issued depending on the nature of the evidence and the location:

  • Residential Warrants: These are used for searching a person’s home or other private premises. They are the most common type of warrant and require a high level of scrutiny due to the significant privacy interests at stake.

  • Electronic Warrants: These warrants pertain to the search and seizure of digital evidence. Electronic warrants have become increasingly common for accessing data stored on computers, smartphones, and other digital mediums.

  • Vehicle Warrants: These are issued for searching vehicles when there is probable cause to believe they contain evidence related to a crime. The inherent mobility of vehicles sometimes necessitates swift action, and in certain urgent situations, law enforcement may proceed with a search under exigent circumstances without a warrant.

  • Blood Draw Warrants: In many DUI, vehicular assault and vehicular homicide cases the State will procure a search warrant for a blood draw authorizing a forceable blood draw to determine the BAC or drugs within the individual’s system that may affect the person’s ability to operate a motor vehicle.
    • Significantly, there are several circumstances where the State cannot rely on voluntary consent and must instead procure a search warrant. Some of these issues have been litigated at length, while others still need to appear in front of the appellate judges on the right case. For example, the law states that if an individual is unconscious because of a collision, a search warrant is required. However, the State routinely will still procure blood through implied or voluntary consent. This is an issue because although an individual may become conscious before providing consent, we do not know if that individual suffered a serious brain or head injury causing that individual to be incapable of giving true voluntary consent. There are several other scenarios where a search warrant is seemingly required by law rather than consent that our lawyers look for in every case.

Can You Refuse A Search Warrant?

A search warrant in Tennessee is more than just a piece of paper; it’s a powerful legal document issued by a judge or magistrate. As previously stated, a warrant gives law enforcement officers the authority to enter a designated location, such as your home or vehicle, and search for specific items connected to a criminal investigation. 

It’s important to note that if law enforcement presents you with a legally obtained and valid search warrant, you cannot lawfully refuse the search. Let’s look at the key actions you should consider from the moment a search warrant is presented to you:

Verification of the Warrant

Upon being presented with a search warrant, your first step should be to verify it. You have the right to see and read the warrant. Check to ensure that it includes the name of the issuing authority, the precise location to be searched, and a specific description of the items law enforcement is seeking. This verification helps confirm the legitimacy of the warrant and the boundaries of the search.

Understanding the Scope of the Search

While you cannot legally impede the search, you can observe it to ensure it stays within the limits set by the warrant. Law enforcement officers are restricted to searching only the areas and for the items specifically listed in the warrant. For example, if the warrant specifies a search of your garage, officers are not authorized to extend that search to other parts of your residence without additional legal permission.

Exercising Your Right to Remain Silent

During the search, remember that you are not obligated to answer questions from the officers. Apart from providing basic identification details, you have the right to remain silent. This is a critical right to exercise until you can consult with an attorney, as anything you say could potentially be used in legal proceedings.

Warrantless Searches: When Are They Legal?

While the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution generally requires a warrant for searches and seizures, there are exceptions based on practical and immediate law enforcement needs. Let’s explore the primary circumstances under which warrantless searches are considered legal in Tennessee:

Exigent Circumstances

Law enforcement officers are allowed to conduct searches without a warrant under exigent circumstances. This means if there is an immediate need for a search to prevent harm, the destruction of evidence, or the escape of a suspect, officers can act without a warrant. Examples of such situations include hearing screams from a house, suggesting someone may be in danger, or witnessing a suspect fleeing into a building.

In the context of DUI cases, exigent circumstances are very limited after recent Supreme Court decisions whereas previously officers routinely alleged that alcohol dissipating from an individual’s blood is grounds to draw their blood without having to wait for a warrant. However, with the State’s ability to procure a warrant relatively quickly with 24/7 magistrate’s available, there is not an excuse under exigent circumstances.

Searches Incident to Arrest

Another scenario where a warrantless search is permissible is during or immediately after a lawful arrest. Officers have the authority to search the arrested individual and the immediate surrounding area. This search is primarily for officer safety, to find weapons, and to prevent the destruction or concealment of evidence. It’s a precautionary measure to ensure no immediate threats exist and to secure any evidence related to the arrest.

Consent Searches

The most common type of warrantless search is a consent search. This occurs when an individual voluntarily agrees to let officers search their property or person. In these cases, no warrant is required. However, it’s imperative that any consent given for a search is truly voluntary and not the result of coercion or intimidation. Understanding that you have the right to refuse consent is important, as any evidence found during a consent search is typically admissible in court. Consent in a DUI case may be voluntary or implied consent.

As we discussed above, every consent must be scrutinized by defense counsel. We routinely challenge whether consent was truly voluntary or if it was coerced. We also look at whether the law prevented a consent search to be valid under certain specific circumstances. Our attorneys evaluate every aspect of consent searches to determine the validity of that consent and suppress any evidence wrongfully obtained.

Inventory Search

Officers routinely rely on an inventory search of a vehicle to find illegal drugs or proof of other crimes. This may be the result of a lower-level misdemeanor or DUI arrest where officers decide to tow the vehicle. Before officers tow the vehicle, they inventory what is inside the vehicle to “protect themselves” from potential claims of theft of property in the vehicle. However, officers must ask the individual arrested if they could make their own arrangements to move the vehicle before inventory searching the vehicle or else any evidence discovered is subject to suppression. Similarly, if the vehicle is parked lawfully where it can legally remain overnight, there is no reason for the vehicle to be towed and searched. It is critical that any evidence discovered through an inventory is evaluated closely.

How to Respond to Requests for Warrantless Searches

When faced with a request for a warrantless search, it’s essential to know how to respond effectively. Here are some practical steps to take:

  • Stay Calm and Courteous: Maintain composure and interact respectfully with law enforcement officers. Agitation or hostility can escalate the situation unnecessarily.
  • Inquire About the Basis of the Search: Politely ask the officers if they have a warrant and, if not, the reason for the warrantless search. Understanding the basis for the search can inform your response.
  • Clearly State Your Refusal for Consent Searches: If the search is based on your consent, you have the right to refuse. Clearly and calmly state that you do not consent to the search. It’s advisable to say something like, “I do not consent to a search.”
  • Document the Interaction: If possible, document the encounter. This could include taking notes or recording the interaction, provided it is safe and legal to do so.
  • Seek Legal Advice: Regardless of whether you consent to the search, it’s wise to contact a lawyer as soon as possible. A lawyer can provide guidance on your rights and the next steps to take.

Protect Your Rights With A Knoxville Attorney

Whether you’re currently facing a search warrant, dealing with the aftermath of a search, or simply have concerns about your rights and the legal process, we’re here to help. At Barnes & Fersten, we believe in empowering our clients through informed legal counsel. Our approach combines thorough legal knowledge with a personalized strategy tailored to your unique situation. Contact us today for a free consultation and take the first step towards securing peace of mind.

Attorney At Law, Managing Partner

Brandon D. Fersten is an esteemed Knoxville attorney practicing DUIcriminal defense, and juvenile law. Known for his empathetic approach and commitment to his clients, he brings a record of favorable case outcomes including dismissals and not guilty verdicts at jury trials resulting in Brandon being recognized as one of the “Top 40 Under 40” in Criminal Defense, U.S. News’ Best Lawyers: “Ones to Watch,” and Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars”. Brandon’s professional accolades, combined with his passion for justice, position him as a reliable criminal defense advocate in the East Tennessee legal landscape.