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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Search Warrants Often Lead to “Collateral Damage”

On Behalf of | Mar 20, 2014 | Search Warrants

Search warrants often lead to charges against not just the target of the search warrant, but also frequently lead to charges against other people with whom the target lives. Those of us in the criminal justice system such as police, prosecutors and defense attorneys refer to such defendants as “collateral damage,” borrowing from the military term referring to civilians who are killed or wounded, when the actual intended target was something of military value to the enemy.
The classic collateral damage search warrant scenario takes place when one housemate or roommate sells an illegal drug to a confidential informant, who has done a controlled drug buy for the police. The confidential informant then tells the drug detective that he saw a massive amount of drugs or weapons in the targeted dealer’s residence. The police will then seek a search warrant, hoping that the little eight ball of blow purchased by the CI may lead to the discovery of kilos of cocaine and a large stack of cash. Often times, the police will obtain a search warrant for the entire premises, and not just the dealer’s bedroom, especially if contraband was seen in a common area. Invariably, the police will discover drugs and paraphernalia in other bedrooms, because the type of people who are going to sell drugs, usually are not going to be living with straight edge people.
More often than not, collateral damage defendants are only charged with misdemeanors such as drug paraphernalia for possession of drugs for personal use, usually a small amount of marijuana. Sometimes the police also find alcohol and fake IDs, leading to additional charges for underage possession of alcohol and possession of a false identification card by a minor. If enough drugs or other indicia of dealing are found to warrant felony charges against a person who was not the target of the search warrant, then it is debatable as to whether such a defendant can be classified as collateral damage. Defense lawyers would likely call such a defendant collateral damage, while police and prosecutors would tend to reserve the term for mere users with misdemeanor charges.
Sometimes, a defense attorney can successfully challenge the validity of a search warrant for an entire residence. Whether or not the police have probable cause to search an entire residence, and not just a targeted dealer’s bedroom, will depend upon the specific facts of each individual case, so it is important for any collateral damage victim/ defendant to talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer. If the police lacked probable cause to search every room, then a Common Pleas Court judge could grant a motion to quash the search warrant, meaning that any evidence obtained pursuant to an unlawfully issued search warrant cannot be used against the collateral damage defendant. This essentially ends the District Attorney’s ability to prosecute the case.
Quite frankly, a lot of drug users enjoy the convenience of living with a dealer. Not only do they have a constant source, but they usually get a combination of price discounts and free drugs. But the downside is that one could easily become a collateral damage victim if the dealer roommate sells to the wrong person. Thus, if you don’t want the police ransacking your room, you are better off not living with a drug dealer.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. He has represented his share of both targeted drug dealer defendants and collateral damage defendants over the years.

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