How to challenge an illegal federal search warrant

All Americans are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures by the United States Constitution.

For a federal law enforcement agency to receive a warrant to search someone’s property, the court must be careful to issue a warrant only if there is legitimate reason to believe that the property may have been involved in a crime (often referred to as “probable cause.”

If the federal agency seeking the warrant provides any false information in their request for a warrant, even a minute detail or twist of the truth, then the search and seizure is considered illegal.

When a search is performed illegally, any evidence obtained from the search is inadmissible in court. If your rights were violated by an illegal search warrant, your attorney can file a Franks motion on your behalf to challenge the warrant in court. Call Ventura federal criminal defense attorney Robert M. Helfend today for a free consultation 805-273-5611.

Your rights under the Fourth Amendment

In order to determine whether it is reasonable to issue a search warrant, a judge must balance the individual’s interests (the intrusion of the search) against the government’s interests (justice and public safety). The Fourth Amendment protects individuals differently depending on the property that is being searched. Below are some of the laws regarding locations that are commonly searched:


It is generally considered unreasonable to search a person’s home without a warrant. There are, however, some exceptional circumstances under which it is legal to search a home without a warrant, including:

  • The search is incident to a lawful arrest
  • The owner of the property consents to the search
  • If the items being searched or seized are in plain view
  • Immediate, or “exigent” circumstances, such as preventing the destruction of evidence 


An officer may search any area of a vehicle if there is probable cause to believe that evidence of criminal activity may be found.


It is legal for an officer to briefly stop a person who is exhibiting suspicious behavior in order to question them. The officer can then make reasonable inquiries to find out whether any criminal behavior is taking place.


School officials have the right to reasonably search a student while on school premises without obtaining a warrant.

When a warrant is legally required for law enforcement to conduct a search or seizure, there are specific protocols that they must follow in order to obtain one. Read below for more information on how federal search warrants work. 

How do federal search warrants work?

Both state and federal jurisdictions can issue search warrants. The main differences between federal and state warrants are:

  1. Whether the alleged illegal activity related to the search is a violation of state or federal law. Federal violations also include those that cross state lines or occur on federal property.
  2. State warrants are issued to local law enforcement by state judges and federal warrants are issued by federal judges or magistrates to federal law enforcement agencies

For a federal official to obtain a search warrant, they must adhere to the following process:

  1. The federal official produces a search warrant affidavit. The affidavit must provide sufficient evidence that a search of the property is necessary. The evidence provided could take various forms including physical evidence or a person’s sworn testimony.
  1. A federal judge determines whether there is probable cause to issue the warrant. Probable cause requires the official to provide specific reasons that the search is necessary. It is not enough for them to have a hunch or even a strong suspicion that the search is justified. According to the legal standard, probable cause is present when the facts and evidence show that:
  • A crime has been committed
  • There is a likelihood that items related to that crime will be found in the search of the property
  1. If the judge or magistrate finds that the evidence provided in the affidavit demonstrates probable cause, they will issue a search warrant. The warrant must be signed by the judge or magistrate and describe the person, place, or thing that is to be searched.
  1. Law enforcement has 14 days to exercise the warrant and search the property. 

Federal law enforcement agents are known to act quickly. This is due to the urgency of situations where there is a risk to public safety or a risk of evidence being destroyed. The risk of losing valuable evidence is especially present in the current day and age where digital evidence can be quickly and easily deleted. Therefore, officials are eager to obtain and execute a search warrant as quickly as possible if they believe a property might hold crucial evidence. As we will discuss more below, the rush to conduct a search and seizure can sometimes result in the use of false information by officials to obtain a warrant. 

Challenging illegal federal search warrants through Franks motions and hearings

If a defendant believes that a warrant to search and seize their property is illegal based on the validity of the information provided in the affidavit, they can challenge it with the use of a Franks motion. The right to file a Franks motion was established by the 1978 Supreme Court case, Franks v. Delaware, which also lends the maneuver its name. 

Navigating federal legal processes is complex and challenging and Franks motions are no different. Additionally, the federal court does not readily grant hearings. If you want to file a Franks motion, it is necessary to work with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney who has considerable knowledge of constitutional law and federal procedures. 

What does a Franks motion need to show in order to be granted a hearing?

A federal court will only grant a Franks motion if it shows:

  • The affidavit submitted by officials contained false statements or omitted material facts
  • The person who gave the affidavit knowingly lied or showed reckless disregard for the truth
  • The lies or omissions were material to the finding of probable cause 

If a judge finds that a Franks motion is valid, they will grant a Franks hearing. During the hearing, the defendant has the opportunity to challenge the statements or omitted facts in the affidavit. This process is known as “traversing the warrant.” The defense can use documentary evidence, witness testimony, or other evidence to prove that the statements and information are inaccurate.

What does a successful Franks hearing mean for a case?

Franks hearings are hard to obtain, and the court places a large burden of proof on the defense. This is because a successful hearing can have a significant impact on a criminal case. If a warrant is rendered invalid, then any evidence that is obtained as a result of the search and seizure cannot be used in court. If the federal prosecutor is left with weak or insufficient evidence, a defendant’s charges could be reduced or dismissed. 

Safeguard your rights with the help of a dedicated federal defense attorney

If your rights have been violated as a result of an illegal search warrant or improper conduct by federal officials in a case or investigation, only a federal criminal defense attorney can assist you in the legal process of defending those rights and protecting your freedom. Attorney Robert M. Helfend has been recognized by numerous legal organizations including Lead Counsel and SuperLawyers for his expertise and exceptional record of success.

For more than three decades, Mr. Helfend and his legal team have provided around-the-clock support and assistance to their clients and are available to answer your legal questions 24/7. For a free consultation, call 805-273-5611.