I'm interested in the New York City jurisdiction.

Imagine a person is involved, or suspected to be involved, in a crime, yet they are not suspected of having committed any crime. For example, imagine a journalist that has been sent a letter from a serial killer that they wanted them to publish. I assume it would be natural for the police to want to look into the journalist, and perhaps search their home and communication devices.

However, if the journalist were to say no, could law enforcement get a search warrant for this? Or in general, if it could be beneficial to an investigation to search the property of an unwilling person, who themselves are not suspected of any crime, is it possible to get a search warrant?

  • Can you please clarify how a person can be suspected, but not suspected? And why you think it is "natural" that the police would want to investigate a journalist who has been sent a letter? The police need to make a good case to obtain a search warrant. The journalist is quite entitled to refuse a search without one, and not imply any guilt, and even if involved in a crime, the evidence would be inadmissable if it was not legally obtained. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 21:01
  • 1
    "Can you please clarify how a person can be suspect, but not suspected?" What is confusing about what I said (your rendition is a bit confusing but what I said is pretty clear). You can be involved in a crime in many ways; not every kind of involvement is one of criminality. You can be a witness, a victim, a hero to the criminal, etc. Now, I don't think it is impossible for such a non-criminal involvement to be of a nature that makes searching the non-criminal's property beneficial to the investigation.
    – user110391
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 21:05
  • "And why you think it is "natural" that the police would want to investigate a journalist who has been sent a letter?" Simple. Ask yourself the question; why exactly that journalist? Maybe because they're popular and likely to publish the letter. Or maybe there's something else going on...? Furthermore, how was the journalist sent the letter? If it was digitally, then they might want to take in their communication device(s) for analysis. If we're dealing with a huge investigation in which federal agencies are involved, I don't see how that's unlikely.
    – user110391
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 21:08
  • Your are expanding the scope to justify the question. No: otherwise all someone would need to do is to write a letter to automatically incriminate the recipient. A journalist isn't an unreasonable target for a serial killer to use as an outlet. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 21:29
  • 3
    @WeatherVane how about this: surveillance video shows someone robbing a store. During the robbery, the perpetrator's hand is injured. Running out of the store, the perpetrator pushes a bystander out of the way, leaving a blood stain on the bystander's shirt. The police identify the bystander and obtain surveillance video showing the bystander going home with the shirt on. The bystander rebuffs police when they seek access to the shirt. Can the police obtain a warrant to search for the shirt in the bystander's home?
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 21:36

4 Answers 4


Police can get a warrant, if the warrant is supported by "probable cause" to believe that evidence of a crime exists. A separate "probable cause" requirement is that to arrest a person, there must be "probable cause" that they committed a crime. However, the Privacy Protection Act makes it unlawful to search "work product materials possessed by a person reasonably believed to have a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication", unless there is probable cause that the person committed the crime in question. There are similar laws ("shield laws") at the state level. Here is a map which gives you an indication what immunities exist in what states.

  • Oops, I was a bit fast with my accepting an answer. The accepted answer does answer my question, but your answer does so AND elaborates with when a warrant cannot be issued (which also happens to be relevant to the example I gave as well). I guess I should move the acceptance, if that's possible.
    – user110391
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 21:41

A search warrant does not have to be served on a suspect

A search warrant may be issued on probable cause that evidence of a crime will be found - there is no requirement that the person or place searched be suspected of involvement. For example, search warrants are routinely served on uninvolved banks when investigating financial crimes, ISPs for hacking crimes etc. in fact, it’s routine practice for businesses to require a warrant before handing over information to avoid breaching privacy law.


See Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, 436 U.S. 547 (1978) in which the United States Supreme Court held that (in summary):

A State is not prevented by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments from issuing a warrant to search for evidence simply because the owner or possessor of the place to be searched is not reasonably suspected of criminal involvement. The critical element in a reasonable search is not that the property owner is suspected of crime, but that there is reasonable cause to believe that the "things" to be searched for and seized are located on the property to which entry is sought.

That established the constitutional floor. However, Congress responded by providing additional protections to journalists via the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 (see generally [ref]). It requires government officials to rely on subpoena rather than a warrant and search and seizure when seeking information from reporters (when those reporters themselves are not suspects of the crime):

[n]otwithstanding any other law,representatives of the government may not search a newsroom for the purpose of obtaining work product or documentary materials relating to a criminal investigation or criminal offense, if there is reason to believe that the work product belongs to someone who will publish it in a "public communication, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce

Consent searches

All of that has to be read in the context of what a Fourth Amendment search is. A search here is when there is a violation of one's reasonable expectation of privacy (or, post-Jones, also would include a trespassory search). If the person in control of the newsroom and its contents consents to the "search" it's not even a Fourth Amendment search (although somewhat confusingly, it's also referred to as a "consent search").


Could law enforcement get a search warrant for this?


The purpose of this type of search warrant is to locate evidence - regardless of whether or not, for example, the person possessing it or a resident in property being searched is suspected of any offence.

Evidence held by a journalist falls in to two categories:

  • "Excluded material" under section 11 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) is material held in confidence, such as information from a confidential source.

  • "Special procedure material" under section 14 includes "journalistic material" defined at section 13 being material acquired or created for the purposes of journalism (not held in confidence), such as a letter from a serial killer who wishes it published in the press.

The process for obtaining a search warrant for either or both categories is the same, and may be found at section 9 and from paragraph 12 onwards in Schedule 1 PACE, which is quite convoluted but may be summarised as:

  • The police make the application before a circuit judge unlike an application for a "regular" search warrant, which would be before a magistrate, to ensure a higher level of judicial scrutiny and oversight.

  • The application has to satisfy the judge that the "access condition" that there are reasonable grounds for believing that there is material which consists of or includes excluded material or special procedure material on premises specified in the application."


PACE sets out certain safeguards and mandatory requirements, including the need "to identify, so far as is practicable, the articles ... to be sought". This part of the application is important as it sets limits and parameters for what can be searched for and then seized as evidence. So if the evidence being sought is just a letter on paper, then it is highly unlikely the warrant will permit a search of any communication devices.

  • I would think if a journalist gets any information relevant to a crime especially anything as serious as murder he or she would probably be best served to reveal that information to police immediately. There is the real possibility that not publishing the murderers letter may save lives.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 16:51

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