Search Warrants and Crime Scenes
By: Joseph Giacalone
There is no such thing as a “Murder Scene Exception” to obtaining a search warrant. Just because the person is dead, does not always equate to a consent search. Initially, the police can enter the location based under the Emergency Exception. They are allowed to search for additional victims and the perpetrator(s). They cannot search for or gather evidence at this stage. Once the emergency is over however, a determination must be made if a search warrant will be necessary to process the scene and collect evidence.
An on-the-scene meeting between the case investigator and the investigating supervisor should take place. The question that must be asked and answered at this moment is, “Does the suspect have an absolute privacy to this location?” Since, most people are killed by someone they know, a search warrant would be necessary for the home / residence. Even a roommate cannot give consent to search another’s room – only the common areas that they share such as a living room or kitchen. If the person lived alone and that was verified through canvasses, then a search of the premises can be made without a warrant.
Before any evidence can be submitted to the court, it must go through a pretrial hearing. For evidence, it is generally known as a Mapp Hearing named after the United States Supreme Court decision of Mapp v. Ohio (1961). A Mapp hearing will determine if the police acted properly when identifying and securing evidence. It is at this stage that the courts will determine if your actions at the crime scene were appropriate. The most important step in homicide investigation is having the mindset that this case is going to trial. There are no do-overs and there are no shortcuts.
There have been three (3) U.S. Supreme Court decisions on search warrants and crime scenes that have told law enforcement repeatedly to obtain a search warrant when the suspect has a right to privacy. Unfortunately, we are still making mistakes. I encourage you to read these cases, one unfortunately had to do with the murder of an undercover officer.
- Mincey v. Arizona (1978)
- Thompson v. Louisiana (1984)
- Flippo v. West Virginia (1999)
Any evidence obtained in violation of the 4th Amendment, will be excluded in court. Remember, there is no such thing as a crime scene exception and you don’t get a second chance to do it right the first time. The old maxim for investigators regarding this matter is: “When in Doubt, Fill it out!”