This is an audio case brief of Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551 (2004).The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.

Table of Contents


In February 1997, a concerned citizen informed Jeff Groh, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) that on a number of visits to the Ramirez’s ranch, the visitor had seen a large stock of weaponry, including an automatic rifle, grenades, a grenade launcher, and a rocket launcher.

Based on that information, Agent Groh prepared and signed an application for a warrant to search the ranch. The application stated that the search was for “any automatic firearms or parts to automatic weapons, destructive devices to include but not limited to grenades, grenade launchers, rocket launchers, and any and all receipts pertaining to the purchase or manufacture of automatic weapons or explosive devices or launchers.” Groh supported the application with a detailed affidavit, which he also prepared and executed. The affidavit set forth the basis for his belief that the listed items were concealed on the ranch. Groh then presented these documents to a Magistrate, along with a warrant form that he also had completed. The Magistrate signed the warrant form.

Although the application particularly described the place to be searched and the contraband Groh expected to find, the warrant itself was less specific; it failed to identify any of the items that Groh intended to seize. In the portion of the form that called for a description of the “person or property” to be seized, Groh typed a description of Ramirez’s two-story blue house rather than the alleged stockpile of firearms. The warrant did not incorporate by reference the itemized list contained in the application. It did, however, recite that the Magistrate was satisfied the affidavit established probable cause to believe that contraband was concealed on the premises, and that sufficient grounds existed for the warrant’s issuance.

The day after the Magistrate issued the warrant, Groh led a team of law enforcement officers, including both federal agents and members of the local sheriff’s department, in the search of Ramirez’s’ premises. Although Joseph Ramirez was not home, his wife and children were. Goh stated that he orally described the objects of the search to Mrs. Ramirez in person and to Mr. Ramirez by telephone. According to Mrs. Ramirez, however, petitioner explained only that he was searching for “ an explosive device in a box.” At any rate, the officers’ search uncovered no illegal weapons or explosives. When the officers left, petitioner gave Mrs. Ramirez a copy of the search warrant, but not a copy of the application, which had been sealed.. No charges were filed against the Ramirezes.

The Ramirezes sued the officers for violating their fourth amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.


Whether a search of Ramirez’s home pursuant to a warrant that failed to describe the “persons or things to be seized” violated the 4th amendment.


The Fourth Amendment states unambiguously that “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.” A warrant that fails to describe the person or things to be seized is invalid.


The found that the warrant in this case complied with the first three of these requirements: It was based on probable cause and supported by a sworn affidavit, and it described particularly the place of the search. On the fourth requirement, however, the warrant failed altogether. Indeed, Groh conceded that “the warrant … was deficient in particularity because it provided no description of the type of evidence sought.”

The fact that the application adequately described the “things to be seized” does not save the warrant from its facial invalidity. The Fourth Amendment by its terms requires particularity in the warrant, not in the supporting documents.

The fact that the application adequately described the “things to be seized” does not save the warrant from its facial invalidity. The Fourth Amendment by its terms requires particularity in the warrant, not in the supporting documents.

The presence of a search warrant served a high function, and that high function is not necessarily vindicated when some other document, somewhere, says something about the objects of the search, but the contents of that document are neither known to the person whose home is being searched nor available for her inspection. We do not say that the Fourth Amendment prohibits a warrant from cross-referencing other documents. Indeed, most Courts of Appeals have held that a court may construe a warrant with reference to a supporting application or affidavit if the warrant uses appropriate words of incorporation, and if the supporting document accompanies the warrant. But in this case the warrant did not incorporate other documents by reference, nor did either the affidavit or the application (which had been placed under seal) accompany the warrant. Hence, we need not further explore the matter of incorporation.

Groh however argued that even though the warrant was invalid, the search nevertheless was “reasonable” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. He noted that a Magistrate authorized the search on the basis of adequate evidence of probable cause, that he orally described to Mrs. Ramirez the items to be seized, and that the search did not exceed the limits intended by the Magistrate and described by petitioner. Thus, he maintained, his search of Ramirezs’s ranch was functionally equivalent to a search authorized by a valid warrant.

But he court disagreed.

This warrant did not simply omit a few items from a list of many to be seized, or misdescribe a few of several items. Nor did it make what fairly could be characterized as a mere technical mistake or typographical error. Rather, in the space set aside for a description of the items to be seized, the warrant stated that the items consisted of a “single dwelling residence … blue in color.” In other words, the warrant did not describe the items to be seized at all. In this respect the warrant was so obviously deficient that we must regard the search as “warrantless” within the meaning of our case law. The right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion stands at the very core of the Fourth Amendment. our cases have firmly established the  basic principle of Fourth Amendment law that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable absent exigent circumstances.

Next Groh asked the court to hold that a search conducted pursuant to a warrant lacking particularity should be exempt from the presumption of unreasonableness if the goals served by the particularity requirement are otherwise satisfied. He maintained that the search in this case satisfied those goals—which he says are “to prevent general searches, to prevent the seizure of one thing under a warrant describing another, and to prevent warrants from being issued on vague or dubious information,” because the scope of the search did not exceed the limits set forth in the application.

But again, the court disagreed with him.

The court explained that unless the particular items described in the affidavit are also set forth in the warrant itself (or at least incorporated by reference, and the affidavit present at the search), there can be no written assurance that the Magistrate actually found probable cause to search for, and to seize, every item mentioned in the affidavit. In this case, for example, it is at least theoretically possible that the Magistrate was satisfied that the search for weapons and explosives was justified by the showing in the affidavit, but not convinced that any evidentiary basis existed for rummaging through Ramirez’s files and papers for receipts pertaining to the purchase or manufacture of such items. Or, conceivably, the Magistrate might have believed that some of the weapons mentioned in the affidavit could have been lawfully possessed and therefore should not be seized. The mere fact that the Magistrate issued a warrant does not necessarily establish that he agreed that the scope of the search should be as broad as the affiant’s request. Even though Groh acted with restraint in conducting the search, “the inescapable fact is that this restraint was imposed by the agents themselves, not by a judicial officer.”

We have long held, moreover, that the purpose of the particularity requirement is not limited to the prevention of general searches. A particular warrant also “assures the individual whose property is searched or seized of the lawful authority of the executing officer, his need to search, and the limits of his power to search. Possession of a warrant by officers conducting an arrest or search greatly reduces the perception of unlawful or intrusive police conduct.


The search was unreasonable under the fourth amendment because the officer did not have in his possession a warrant particularly describing the things he intended to seize.

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