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 – goodguys_activate Aug 30 '16 at 17:54
  • @Dawn Added the safe/lockbox metaphor – goodguys_activate Aug 30 '16 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 '16 at 19:10

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.

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  • 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 '16 at 7:51
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    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. – David Schwartz Sep 1 '16 at 17:19

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