Why the “Four Corners” of a Search Warrant are Important in Pennsylvania

WarrantSearch warrants are a critical concept in any criminal case and are often used in cases involving drugs, guns, or any case where police are searching for evidence of a crime. I have written previous articles on warrantless searches but this one focuses on matters specifically where police have taken the time to complete an affidavit of probable cause to obtain a search warrant from a magistrate or judge. I encourage you to read my articles on warrantless searches for more information on this topic.

Pennsylvania’s Constitution and the US Constitution actually differ on what constitutes a valid search and seizure warrant. It’s important to remember that the Federal Constitution establishes certain minimum levels which are equally applicable to every state but that each state has the power to provide broader standards and go beyond the minimal level. A key concept that is essential to an understanding of search warrants is the “exclusionary rule”.

There is an exclusionary rule in Pennsylvania and one under the federal constitution but these rules differ in the level of protections that they provide to an individual who is the target of a search warrant. The exclusionary rule prohibits the unreasonable search and seizure of an item if it violates a person’s constitutional rights under the state or federal constitution. A search warrant in Pennsylvania or at the federal government levels both require Affidavits of Probable Cause.

In this Affidavit police must document and articulate their probable cause basis – the reason why they believe that evidence of a crime will be found in the place that they are requesting to search. The Affidavit of Probable Cause, however, is where Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution differ.

At the federal level there is a “good faith” exception which allows a court to look beyond the “four corners” of a search warrant and to determine if police executing the warrant were acting in “good faith” reliance of a warrant issued by “a neutral and detached” magistrate (or judge). This basically means that a court will not find that the search warrant was issued in violation of a person’s rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provided that the police officer does not knowingly or “recklessly” provide false information to the magistrate or that the warrant is “so lacking in the indicia of probable cause as to render the official’s belief in its existence unreasonable.”

The exclusionary rule at the federal level therefore allows a federal court (even one within the Commonwealth) to analyze other information that a magistrate took into account prior to approving the warrant in addition to what is contained in the affidavit of probable cause. In Pennsylvania, however, there is no “good faith” exception and courts will only consider the contents of the affidavit or probable cause in determining whether a search warrant violated a person’s rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution pursuant to Article 1, Section 8.

This is the reason why a motion challenging the constitutionality of a search warrant is known as a “four corner’s motion.” Here, the defense is specifically asking the judge to determine the warrant’s constitutionality based on what is contained within the four corners of the document. This is a very important distinction between Pennsylvania and the Federal Constitution and it’s a critical point especially in those cases where the results of the search warrant leads to the recovery of incriminating evidence and the eventual arrest of the defendant.

For more information on search warrants, probable cause, and other criminal defense strategies, I encourage you to read my free books, subscribe to my monthly newsletter, and watch my videos.