Bale-ing from a Common Sense Reading: Warrants and the Particularity Requirement

The warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, along with its sister requirement in the Missouri Constitution, is a vital component of our Bill of Rights.  It protects against unreasonable government intrusion into the private lives of citizens.  Requiring a warrant to describe with particularity the things to be searched and seized further ensures against unreasonable intrusion.  But a recent Missouri case has shaken up the details of the Missouri warrant requirement.  

By: Zachary Walker

State v. Bales, 630 S.W.3d 754 (Mo. banc 2021)


     The warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, along with its sister requirement in the Missouri Constitution, is a vital component of our Bill of Rights.1  It protects against unreasonable government intrusion into the private lives of citizens.2  Requiring a warrant to describe with particularity the things to be searched and seized further ensures against unreasonable intrusion.  But a recent Missouri case has shaken up the details of the Missouri warrant requirement.  Now, after State v. Bales, government officials are expected to go even further and require that they write and interpret warrants in a specific way –one which strays further from a “commonsense” understanding of the average warrant, with implications impacting the criminal justice system.3


     On March 17, 2019, a detective (“Detective”), an officer, and a social worker went to James Bales’ (“Defendant”) home to question him about a possible abuse or neglect of his son,4 who had a head injury and a shaken baby syndrome diagnosis.5  When the officials were questioning Defendant, he showed them a video from his phone that showed his son volitionally hitting his head on the floor.6  The Detective believed this video was incriminating and sought a search warrant of Defendant’s phone.7

     To support Detective’s sought warrant, Detective described in an affidavit what he believed would be on the phone through his prior training and experience.8  Detective described the phone sought as a “Samsung Galaxy Black in color and belonging to James Christopher Bales[,] [c]urrently at 13251 Highway O Dixon Missouri 65459.”9  After giving the affidavit to the assistant prosecutor, the prosecutor applied for a search warrant of Defendant’s phone, which was granted.10  The application for the search warrant described the phone as a “Samsung Galaxy Black in color belonging to [Defendant],” along with the cellphone number and address, mirroring Detective’s description.11  However, the circuit court granted a search warrant without incorporating the affidavit, cellphone number, or the identity of Defendant.12

     Before the execution of the search warrant, Defendant returned to the sheriff’s office to talk to Detective.13  Defendant showed Detective the video on his phone again, and Detective confiscated the phone, stating there was a search warrant for the phone.14  After searching the phone, an investigator determined that there was evidence of other potential crimes and applied for a second search warrant.15  As the second warrant was pending, Defendant moved to quash the first warrant on grounds of lack of particularity.16  The court found that the first warrant authorized the seizure of a cell phone but was not sufficiently particularized because “black Samsung cell phones in black cases are ubiquitous.”17  The circuit court held that, because an officer could not presume the warrant to be valid due to lack of particularity, the search of the data on the phone essentially occurred without a warrant or warrant exception and thus all evidence seized pursuant to that warrant was suppressed.18  The Supreme Court affirmed.19


     This section will discuss the basics of the particularity requirement and what it means for interpreting search warrants.  Then, this section will review the remedy and an exception to the requirement.

A. Particularity Requirement and Scope of Warrants

     The Fourth Amendment, which governs searches and seizures, requires that probable cause exists to issue a warrant.20  There must be probable cause that evidence of a crime is to be found in some place but not just anywhere.21  The warrant is required to describe the place to be searched or thing to be seized with particularity.22  This requirement was added in order to deter general searches by the government and to assure the individual who is subject to the warrant that the warrant is lawful.23  Law enforcement are not allowed to search or seize anything that is not within the warrant, save for a few exceptions.24  The particularity requirement is met when “the warrant’s description enables the searcher to reasonably ascertain and identify the items to be seized.”25  Thus, if the warrant does sufficiently identify the items of interest, then a search or seizure conducted pursuant to said warrant is unconstitutional.26

     Particularity restricts the breadth of a warrant because the warrant’s scope is limited by the terms.27  Particularity is generally met if “the description” of the thing “is such that the officer with a search warrant can[] with reasonable effort ascertain and identify the place intended” to be searched.28  But, if an officer’s search or seizure is beyond that of the warrant’s terms, any subsequent seizure is unlawful.29  So, how a court interprets the words of the warrant is important.30  Courts review a warrant in a “commonsense” manner, rather than a “hypertechnical” way.31  Courts read warrants in this manner because it is consistent with the “Fourth Amendment’s strong preferences for searches conducted pursuant to a warrant,” and thus, courts must interpret particularity in a commonsense manner.32  Only an exception to the warrant requirement would allow the state to get over a particularity challenge.33

B. Remedy and Exceptions

     When a search or seizure is conducted pursuant to an unconstitutional warrant, or the conduct of the officials executing the warrant is outside the scope of that warrant, the proper remedy is to exclude any evidence found after the violation.34  There is, however, an exception to this particularity requirement: the good faith exception.35  The good faith exception allows evidence obtained pursuant to an invalid warrant to be admitted into evidence if it was reasonable for the officer to rely on the invalid warrant,36 principally similar to the exception to the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule.37  Thus, if it is objectively reasonable for an officer to conduct the steps of an invalid warrant, the good faith exception allows evidence found pursuant to said warrant to be admissible.38


     With a question of particularity in front of the Court, the majority narrowly won out on grounds that the phone described in the warrant was sufficiently particular and limited the detective only to seizing the phone at the address written and that the good faith exception did not apply.39

A. Majority

     The State appealed the circuit court’s decision to exclude the evidence, and the issue presented to the Missouri Supreme Court was “whether the March search warrant was a . . . valid basis for the seizure of the cell phone” and searching its contents at the sheriff’s office.”40  The State argued that the circuit court erred because (1) R.S. Mo. § 542.286 allows the seizure of an inherently movable object found outside the warrant’s area; (2) even if facially invalid, the officer acted in good faith on the warrant; and (3) the warrant was “facially valid” and described the phone with sufficient particularity.41  Defendant poised that the warrant did not meet the particularity requirement because it did not describe the phone with “sufficient particularity.”42

     The Court first analyzed the State’s contentions.43  First, the State argued that, because a cell phone is “inherently movable,” it is seizeable where it may be found.44  The Court declined to review this argument due to the State raising this issue for the first time in their reply brief.45  However, the Court went on and said, even if they were to review it, the State’s contention would not pass muster because the justifying statute only allows for an object to be seized outside the scope of the warrant if it leaves the territorial jurisdiction of the issuing warrant, which the cell phone never did.46  Relying on the good faith exception, the State then argued that Detective’s actions were objectively reasonable and fit within the good faith exception.47  But, the Court found that it is not objectively reasonable for an officer to “search beyond the scope of a warrant,” and therefore, the good faith exception did not apply because Detective seized the phone beyond the scope of the warrant.48

     The Court found that it did not have to reach the question of whether the cell phone was described with sufficient particularity because the warrant was facially valid as to the area to be searched and the Detective breached the warrant by seizing the cell phone outside the warranted area.49  The Court stated that this is because Detective seized the phone while Defendant was being questioned at the sheriff’s office,50 while the warrant required the search and any possible seizure to take place at Defendant’s home.51  Therefore, Detective exceeded the scope of the warrant, allowing for the suppression of the subsequently found evidence.52

B. Dissent

     Chief Justice Wilson’s dissent found that the warrant described both the location to be searched and the thing to be seized with sufficient particularity.53  The dissent further found that, even if the warrant was not sufficiently particular, the good faith exception would apply.54

     First, the dissent recognized that the thing to be seized was sufficiently particular.55  Next, the dissent looked at the second sentence of the warrant, which it concluded describes the place to be searched –the Defendant’s home– and found it only modified the thing to be seized –the cell phone.56  As such, the dissent’s reading of the warrant is understood to say the cell phone –the subject of the sentence – is simply modified by the address that comes after.57  In essence, according to the dissent, because the address comes after the cell phone, the address is simply trying to identify the correct cell phone to be seized and searched as compared to where the phone must be seized.58  The dissent also points out that the item to be seized is inherently moveable; limiting an inherently moveable object to only be seized in one location is not a common sense reading.59

     Next, the dissent found that, even if the description of the cell phone was not sufficiently particular, the good faith exception would apply.60  The dissent explained that when it comes to the application of the good faith exception to a search warrant, the exception will apply where “the officers executing the warrant . . . search ‘only those places and for those objects that it was reasonable to believe were covered by the warrant.’”61  Because the Detective reasonably believed the warrant authorized him to seize the phone without having to physically be present at the address provided, the dissent concluded that the good faith exception should have been applied in this case and exclusion should not have been allowed.62


     State v. Bales is a prime example of over-analyzing what seems to be obvious.  Instead of reading a description of an item in its most common-sense meaning, the Missouri Supreme Court adopts a reading that nobody would rationally adopt.

     First, the Court’s application of the particularity requirement and its interpretation of what the warrant says does not achieve the guarantees of the Fourth Amendment.  The entire purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to barricade citizens from overbearing governmental interference.63  As such, the rules governing the Fourth Amendment should be a means to that end.  The particularity requirement of warrants is one way of reaching that goal. However, interpreting search warrants in such a way as to make it almost unreasonable for the government to search things and seize items pursuant to a reasonable interpretation of a warrant does not meet this goal.  The common-sense reading that the dissent points towards complies with the purpose of the Fourth Amendment: the warrant specifically identifies the correct cell phone and where it is typically located.  More information is not generally necessary.64

     Next, to require more –or to require such an odd interpretation– would only further hinder the criminal justice system.  The question is whether the description of the warrant is sufficient for an officer to ascertain and identify the object to be seized or searched with reasonable effort.65  That standard was certainly met here.  With reasonable effort, the detective could ascertain and identify the thing to be searched and seized.  The warrant stated the breadth of the warrant and the thing to be seized.66  A reasonable effort of an interpretation of the warrant suggests that the phone is the black Samsung that is located at the address described, not that the seizure must take place at such address.  Following the majority’s requirement would mean officials creating and carrying out warrants are going to have to second-guess whether their interpretation is correct in every scenario, instead of going with the standard that has been federally recognized: whether the officer could ascertain and identify the scope and subject of the warrant with reasonable effort.


     Protecting citizens from an overbearing government is one of the most fundamental aspects of our Constitution. Warrants and their requirements are one foundational method by which the United States achieves the goal of balancing the interests between private and public interests.  Requiring a particularized warrant ensures that warrants are not abused.  But, requiring officials to over-analyze whether their common-sense interpretation is correct is not an approach that Missouri should follow. Such a standard does not protect the public against unreasonable governmental intrusion but would impede an already bogged-down criminal justice system.67


[1] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[2] Annual Review, Overview of the Fourth Amendment, 37 Geo. L. J. Ann. Rev. Crim.  Proc. 3, 9 (2008).

[3] State v. Bales, 630 S.W.3d 754, 764 (Mo. 2021) (en banc).

[4] Id. at 756.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 757.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. (“. . . [T}hrough my training and experience dealing with Child Abuse and Neglect cases, know that an alleged perpetrator, will video record the child after an incident, (stating I found the child this way), or have recorded past incidents of abuse. Send text messages to family and friends, asking questions about the alleged types of abuse. Google different types of Child Abuses [sic] cases, symptoms, and signs of Abuse”).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 757–58.

[16] Id. at 758.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. The trial court found that Defendant’s motion to quash was essentially a motion to suppress and treated it as such.

[19] Id. at 764

[20] Annual Review, supra note 2 at 13. The Supreme Court has defined “probable cause” as “a fair probability that . . . evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.” (Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983)).

[21] Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983).

[22] U.S. Const. amend. IV. (“. . . and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause . . . and particularly describing the place to be searched . . . or things to be seized.”).

[23] Justin H. Meeks, Can a Search Warrant that is Particular Upon Issuance Lose its Particularity Upon Execution?, 9 Fla. Costal. L. Rev. 237, 237–38 (2008).

[24] State v. Douglass, 544 S.W.3d 182, 192 (Mo 2021) (en banc).

[25] State v. Tolen, 304 S.W.3d 229, 232 (Mo. Ct. App. 2009).

[26] Id. at 238.

[27] Walter v. United States, 447 U.S. 649 (1980).

[28] Steele. V. United States, 267 U.S. 498, 503 (1925).

[29] Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 140 (1990).

[30] See Horton, 496 U.S. at 140. Because the words of a warrant can determine whether a subsequent search is lawful, the interpretation of warrants is important.

[31] Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 236 (1983).

[32] Id.

[33] Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 481 (1971).

[34] Id.

[35] State v. Sweeney, 701 S.W.2d 420, 426 (Mo. 1985) (en banc).

[36] Id.

[37] U.S. Const. amend IV.

[38] Id.

[39] State v. Bales, 630 S.W.3d 754, 764 (Mo. 2021) (en banc).

[40] Id.

[41] Id. at 759.

[42] Id.

[43] Id. at 762.

[44] Id.

[45] Id. The Court will not review an issue on appeal if such issue was never saved for appellate review, and issues raised in the first instance on appeal are not preserved for appellate review. Id.

[46] Id.

[47] 763.

[48] Id.

[49] Id. at 759.

[50] Id. at 762

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id. at 765 (Wilson, Chief J., dissenting).

[54] Id.

[55] Id.

[56] Id.

[57] Id.

[58] Id.

[59] Id. at 766.

[60] Id. at 767.

[61] Id. (quoting State v. Lucas, 452 S.W.3d 641, 643 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014)).

[62] Id. at 769.

[63] Annual Review, supra note 2 at 9. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable” searches and seizures by the government, therefore protecting the right to be free from certain governmental intrusion.

[64] State v. Brown, 708 S.W.2d 140, 143 (Mo. 1986) (en banc).

[65] Steele. V. United States, 267 U.S. 498, 503 (1925).

[66] See infra part II.

[67] See Brian Ostrum and Lydia Hambin, Timely Justice in Criminal Cases: What the Data Tells Us, National Center for State Courts, (last accessed July 9, 2022).