The courts are frequently called upon in criminal cases to determine whether a search by the police violated a defendant’s 4th Amendment constitutional protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. Many of these cases involve a search where no warrant was involved, but sometimes the warrant itself may be at issue. This is illustrated by an unreported opinion this month from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a case called Hector Colon v. State.
The opinion indicates that the police got a tip that illegal drugs were being sold from an apartment, and applied for and were granted a warrant to search the apartment. The warrant included, as many of them do, the right to seize any illegal drugs that were found. It also included the right to seize money or “any other items of value” that could reasonably be associated with illegal drug sales.
When the police executed the warrant, the defendant was at home. No drugs were found by the police or a drug sniffing dog, but a Chrysler car key was found on the defendant. When he denied knowing what it was for, the police searched the parking lot and located a car that the key would open. When the dog alerted for the presence of drugs, the police searched the car and found a semiautomatic rifle that Colon, who had a criminal record, could not legally possess. The trial judge refused a motion to suppress use of the rifle at trial, convicted the defendant and he appealed.
The appellate Court held that though there was some question whether the State properly preserved its position on appeal, since the ultimate result would be in the defendant’s favor it addressed the warrant issue. The Court found that a car key, which was not listed in the warrant, could not reasonably be deemed an “item of value” like money as specified in the warrant. Therefore, the police had no right to seize the car key or whatever was found using the key.
Therefore, the Court ruled that since the search was illegal, the rifle could not be used in evidence and the conviction was overturned. This illustrates how careful the courts are in preserving 4th amendment rights, even where there is a warrant.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.