Yes. Although the Fourth Amendment requires search warrants to specifically describe what items can be seized, an officer may seize any item they feel relates to the crime being investigated. Some courts even allow officers to seize documents related to any criminal activity at all. Also, any documents that were used to carry out criminal activity can automatically be seized, regardless of whether they are listed in a search warrant.
Can Police Seize Documents Not Listed in a Search Warrant?
As stated above, police officials are limited to seizing documents that relate to some form of criminal activity. Most courts officially describe this limitation as a "nexus" between the document being seized and the crime being investigated. Though "nexus" is the standard limitation often used, the broadness of the term varies among different states and courts.
What Types of Documents Form a “Nexus” with a Crime, Allowing Seizure?
Any document can form a "nexus" between itself and a crime in question. The following are a just few examples that have been applied in the courts:
- A newspaper article describing the crime being investigated
- Checks, bills, and receipts
- Various letters and correspondence
- Diaries and journals
- Traffic citations
It is important to note that, along with proving a "nexus" between the document and the crime, police officers must also show probable cause. In other words, the document must be suspicious enough when seen to warrant searching it. For example, if a notebook has a title on the cover stating, "Explosive Diagrams,"officers have reasonable cause to search it. On the other hand, a bound columnar pad with no title on the front may not warrant a search.
Are There Any Documents That Don’t Require Proving a “Nexus” to a Crime?
Yes. If the document was actually used in conjunction with a crime, it can automatically be seized. For example, if someone is being investigated for stealing computer trade secrets, a diagram of a top secret computer device can be seized even if it isn’t described in the warrant.
A second type of document that doesn’t require proving a "nexus" includes documents that are in plain view. When police have a warrant to search an area, anything that can be seen just from observing the area is fair game. However, officers must still show probable cause in order to seize the documents. Also, these documents must also have been found inadvertently, meaning that officers cannot devote their time looking for documents not listed in the search warrant.
Can State Laws Take Away the “Nexus” Requirement?
Yes. If state law allows officers to seize documents not listed in a search warrant, officers have full power to take such items.
How Can a Lawyer Help Me?
The police’s ability to search and seize property for criminal investigation is governed by strict procedure and state law. If you feel that police officials have wrongfully taken your personal documents, you should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. A lawyer can determine whether police have a right to seize your documents, and ensure that proper police procedures are being followed.