Are search warrants limited to evidence for a specific crime?

For example, assume a search warrant is issued based on probable cause of property theft. While executing this search warrant, the police find marijuana. Would this marijuana be admissible in court for a charge of possessing that marijuana?

  • @Dawn - replaced the word with metaphor. Since privacy laws are new in the computer world, I am hoping to understand the scope and intent of physical laws, so that I can create a software version of it Aug 30, 2016 at 17:54
  • @Dawn Added the safe/lockbox metaphor Aug 30, 2016 at 17:55
  • I realize I've removed your question about being forced to reveal the code to a safe. I think that is different enough that it warrants its own question.
    – user3851
    Aug 30, 2016 at 19:10

2 Answers 2


A search warrant describes the particular location to be searched and the things to be seized:

no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized

In Groh v. Ramirez 540 U.S. 551 (2004), a search warrant failed to do this, and it was held invalid:

The warrant was plainly invalid. It did not meet the Fourth Amendment’s unambiguous requirement that a warrant “particularly describ[e] … the persons or things to be seized.” The fact that the application adequately described those things does not save the warrant; Fourth Amendment interests are not necessarily vindicated when another document says something about the objects of the search, but that document’s contents are neither known to the person whose home is being searched nor available for her inspection.

However, if while executing the search warrant, the government comes across evidence "in plain view", it may be seized and is admissible in court.

Coolidge v. New Hampshire 403 U.S. 443 (1971):

Under certain circumstances, the police may, without a warrant seize, evidence in "plain view," though not for that reason alone, and only when the discovery of the evidence is inadvertent.


An example of the applicability of the "plain view" doctrine is the situation in which the police have a warrant to search a given area for specified objects, and, in the course of the search, come across some other article of incriminating character.

  • By coincidence, I heard of a case in England where someone holding a gun was followed by police and illegally entered a house to escape; the police followed him (which they could do without a search warrant because the guy was obviously dangerous), got him, but also got the house owner because he was growing cannabis or marijuana in his home. The house owner was in no way suspect before this happened.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 1, 2016 at 7:51
  • 1
    And even if there was no "plain view" doctrine, the police could just obtain another warrant to search and seize what they saw. The plain view doctrine just saves the police the effort of obtaining another warrant. Sep 1, 2016 at 17:19

Are search warrants limited to evidence for a specific crime?

YES Different Acts have slightly different wording but they all require the police to suspect an offence, for example s.8(1) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984:

(1) If on an application made by a constable a justice of the peace is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing —

(a) that an indictable offence has been committed; and

(b) that there is material on [the] premises ... which is likely to be of substantial value (whether by itself or together with other material) to the investigation of the offence;


(e) he may issue a warrant authorising a constable to enter and search the premises...

s.15(6)(b) requires all search warrants to state what is being searched for:

(6) A warrant—


(b) shall identify, so far as is practicable, the articles or persons to be sought.

Searches are also limited to the extent required for the purpose for which the warrant was issued: s.16(8) - meaning a search warrant for a stolen car does not authorise looking in drawers, cupboards etc unlike one issued for, say, a stolen mobile phone.  Once the items have been found (or not as the case may be) officers must vacate the premises unless there is another lawful reason to remain there.

Would this marijuana be admissible in court for a charge of possessing that marijuana?

YES If an officer finds evidence of an unrelated offence - either during a search under a warrant or is lawfully on the premises for any other reason - then s.19 is available to seize the items which may open a new investigation:

(1) The powers conferred by subsection ... (3) ... below are exercisable by a constable who is lawfully on any premises.

(3) The constable may seize anything which is on the premises if he has reasonable grounds for believing—

(a) that it is evidence in relation to an offence which he is investigating or any other offence; and

(b) that it is necessary to seize it in order to prevent the evidence being concealed, lost, altered or destroyed.

If anyone was arrested for an indictable offence in connection with that other evidence (such as possession of a controlled drug) then this would trigger the non-warrant seach of premises power at s.32 to look for related evidence:

(2) ... a constable shall also have [the] power in any such case —

(b) if the offence for which he has been arrested is an indictable offence, to enter and search any premises in which he was when arrested or immediately before he was arrested for evidence relating to the offence.


Meaning although the original warrant is no longer extant, a new search can begin for evidence of the newly discovered drugs offence.

  • 1
    Off topic: Cool - I didn't know the [ tag: feature existed! Mar 22, 2021 at 17:17

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