Search Warrant Declared Unconstitutional In Wheeler v. City of Lansing

When an individual is under investigation for any Michigan crime – whether charges are filed and the outcome may depend on the physical evidence collected. As a result the objects and other evidence “seized” pursuant to a search warrant is critical. Protecting an individual’s constitutional right to privacy and ensuring law enforcement doesn’t overstep its boundaries in collecting evidence pursuant to a search warrant is of utmost importance.

In a recent case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed whether a police officer with the City of Lansing police department violated a defendant’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy when he executed an overly broad search warrant. In Wheeler v. City of Lansing, the appellate court reviewed whether a search warrant was invalid because it was written so broadly as to include items without the necessary particularity and whether a reasonable police officer should have recognized that the warrant was deficient.

An experienced Michigan criminal defense lawyer can review a search warrant, determine whether the warrant is invalid and fight to suppress any evidence wrongfully obtained.

In Wheeler v. City of Lansing, the City of Lansing police department was conducting an investigation into property crimes, including home invasions. After being told that the boyfriend of a woman, Stella Wheeler, may be involved and had taken property to Wheeler’s apartment, Officer Dennis Wirth obtained a no-knock search warrant to search her apartment. The search warrant listed as property to be “searched and seized” to include “evidence of home invasions that have occurred in Eaton County and Ingham County including but not limited to personal property…”

A swat team then descended upon Wheeler’s apartment and seized many items of personal property including a camera, a power adapter cord for a laptop computer, three gold bracelets, a radio, a nineteen-inch television and an energy bill addressed to Stella Wheeler. Wheeler subsequently filed a lawsuit against the City of Lansing and Wirth alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment including that the warrant was not valid and that the warrant was too vague.
A warrant must describe with some specificity the items to be seized. Wheeler alleged that the warrant was constitutionally deficient because it failed to describe the property to be seized with sufficient “particularity,” i.e. that the warrant was too vague. For example, the warrant listed “televisions and cameras” but not what brand or dimensions, or other identifying characteristics. Previous case law has held that “[g]eneral warrants that fail to describe with particularity the things to be searched and seized for ‘create a danger of unlimited discretion in the executing officer’s determination of what is subject to seizure and a danger that items will be seized when the warrant refers to other items.” “[T]he degree of specificity required is flexible and will vary depending on the crime involved … we have noted that ‘a warrant referring to stolen property of a certain type is insufficient if that property is common.”

Because the warrant provided no basis to distinguish her own personal property from the alleged stolen property, the court determined that the warrant was constitutionally deficient and that the officer was not entitled to immunity for carrying out the warrant. A reasonable officer should know that listing general categories of items to be seized without further details violates the Fourth Amendment. Specificity is particularly important when all of the property to be seized can be legally obtained.

The constitution has many significant protections applicable throughout any criminal investigation. An aggressive criminal defense law firm can fight to ensure your rights are not violated by over zealous law enforcement.

For more information concerning search warrants or if you or a loved one is under investigation for any criminal offense, contact the dedicated Michigan criminal defense attorneys at Grabel & Associates for prompt attention.