Unreasonable search and seizure: Specificity is key

Unreasonable search and seizure: Specificity is key

While the U.S. Constitution guarantees your right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, there continue to be instances where law enforcement officers violate that right, either through negligence or simple and willful disregard. The result is a huge—and growing—body of law that focuses on interpreting when and under what conditions a search and seizure is reasonable.

Federal District Court Judge Alison J. Nathan recently sent a strong message to prosecutors and the police when she granted a motion by New York City financier Benjamin Wey to suppress all evidence seized during a 2012 search of his home and office. If her ruling is upheld, then it could make it highly difficult to prove the stock manipulation and money laundering charges that were filed against Wey in 2015.

Under the Fourth Amendment, a warrant is required to “particularly” describe the premises to be searched and the items seized. This is a relatively simple matter when easily identifiable items such as weapons and drugs are the focus of the search, but white collar matters like fraud are more complicated because nearly any written or electronic record could be related to the case being investigated. As a result, the descriptions for seizable records in a white collar matter tend to be more general.

In Mr. Wey’s case, the government obtained warrants to search his apartment and his company offices for evidence that he manipulated the shares of companies involved in mergers with businesses based in China. The warrants called for the seizure of computers, tablets, and any electronic devices that could potentially contain records related to the alleged fraud.

Judge Nathan found that these warrants failed in properly specifying crimes that were allegedly committed. As a result, the necessary limitation on the types of records subject to seizure was not present.

When seeking the warrant, an FBI agent had submitted an affidavit that gave a reasonable description of the crimes being investigated, but it was not incorporated into the warrant to create parameters for the search. Consequently, the parties executing the warrant seized almost as much as they could carry, including items with no obvious connection to the case, such as family photographs and passports.

In her ruling, Judge Nathan found that failure to reference the alleged crimes was enough to invalidate the warrants and turn the search into a violation of Mr. Wey’s Fourth Amendment rights. The decision sends a clear and definite message to those investigating and prosecuting white collar criminal investigations: use caution when employing a search warrant as an evidence-gathering medium. Failure to pay proper attention to both the writing and execution of the warrants can result in a serious setback for the case.

If you are charged with a white collar crime on the basis of an illegal search and seizure, then contact a New York criminal defense attorney who can help ensure that any violation of your rights can never be used against you later on. Julie Rendelman is a New York City criminal defense attorney and a former prosecutor with more than 20 years of legal experience. Ms. Rendelman’s office is conveniently located in Midtown Manhattan. If you have been charged with a crime or if you are concerned that you may be, then it is in your best interest to hire a lawyer. Call 212-951-1232 for a free consultation or visit www.RendelmanLaw.com to learn more.