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Understanding Search Warrants What They Are and How They Work

Understanding Search Warrants: What They Are and How They Work​

 

Search warrants are legal documents that allow law enforcement to search a specific location or property for evidence related to a crime. A search warrant is a court order that authorizes law enforcement officials to conduct a search of a specific location or property. This includes a home, vehicle, business, or any other location where evidence related to a crime might be found. A search warrant is obtained through a legal process and requires probable cause, or a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed, to be issued. Understanding what a search warrant is, and how it works, is crucial for anyone who may be subject to one or is following a case. In this post, we will explore search warrants and their use in criminal investigations. 

What are the requirements for obtaining a search warrant?

To obtain a search warrant, law enforcement officials must provide a written statement or affidavit that outlines the probable cause for the search. This may include witness statements, physical evidence, or other information that suggests a crime has been committed. The statement must also describe the specific location to be searched and the items to be seized.

Additionally, search warrants are subject to certain legal requirements and restrictions to protect the rights of individuals. For example, law enforcement officials must knock and announce their presence before entering a property, and the search must be conducted within a reasonable time frame. Of course, a judge can always change, add, or alter a search warrant to make it a no-knock warrant.

How does a search warrant work?

A search warrant is issued by a judge or magistrate after a law enforcement official files an affidavit or written statement providing evidence of probable cause. The warrant specifies the location to be searched, the items to be seized, and the time frame in which the search can take place. Once a warrant is issued, law enforcement officials are authorized to search the specified location and seize any items specified in the warrant. If you are conducting a search warrant, and there happens to be evidence of another crime, then you can legally seize the evidence through the plain view exception and charge them, or use the items and information found to apply for an additional search warrant.

For example: If you were granted a search warrant for evidence of a homicide that had taken place inside the suspects residence, with probable cause that the firearm used is hidden somewhere in the suspects bedroom. You enter the property and move towards the closet where you find a hidden compartment full of kiddie porn (Child pornography), you may seize the evidence as you were lawfully present and the material is apparently criminal in nature. Law Enforcement can now use that evidence and information to apply for a search warrant of the suspects computer, laptop and phone as you would not be able to articulate the connection of this type of pornography also being on the suspect electronics.

What is the Plain View Exception?

The “plain view” exception is a legal doctrine that allows law enforcement officials to seize evidence without a warrant if they come across it while lawfully in a place where they have the right to be and if the incriminating nature of the evidence is immediately apparent. Under this exception, if an officer is lawfully present in a location and sees evidence of a crime in plain view, they may seize the evidence without a warrant. For example, if an officer is conducting a lawful search of a suspect’s home and sees illegal drugs sitting on a table, the officer may seize the drugs without a warrant. The plain view exception is based on the idea that if evidence is in plain view, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to that evidence. However, for the exception to apply, the officer must have a lawful right to be in the location where the evidence is found, and the incriminating nature of the evidence must be immediately apparent.

What is Probable Cause?

Probable cause is a legal standard that refers to the reasonable belief that a crime has been or is being committed, based on specific facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. Probable cause is the level of evidence required to obtain a warrant, make an arrest, or conduct a search. It is an important protection against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Probable cause is determined by evaluating the totality of the circumstances, including the officer’s observations, information provided by witnesses or informants, and any other relevant evidence. The standard is a flexible one that requires only a probability or a substantial chance of criminal activity, rather than absolute certainty. Another way of thinking of probable cause is more likely than not or 51% or greater likelihood.

Standard Search Warrant

A standard search warrant is a type of legal document issued by a court magistrate or judge that authorizes law enforcement officials to search a specific location for evidence related to a crime. This type of warrant is the most common type of search warrant used by law enforcement officials. Once a standard search warrant is issued, law enforcement officials can enter the specified location and search for the items listed in the warrant. The search must be conducted within the time frame specified in the warrant and must not exceed the scope of the warrant. If law enforcement officials find evidence during the search that was not listed in the warrant, they may not use it as evidence in court unless it falls under one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as the plain view doctrine or the inevitable discovery doctrine.

No-knock warrant

A no-knock warrant is a type of search warrant that allows law enforcement officials to enter a property without first announcing their presence. This means that they can forcibly enter a property without warning, using tactics such as breaking down doors or windows. The purpose of a no-knock warrant is to prevent the destruction of evidence or to protect law enforcement officials from potentially dangerous situations.

The use of no-knock warrants has been controversial in recent years, particularly in cases where they have resulted in the injury or death of innocent people. Some experts have argued that no-knock warrants are unnecessarily aggressive and can lead to excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. Other experts have argued that no-knock warrants are necessary in ensuring the safety of the law enforcement officers entering, as it stops the suspect/suspects from arming themselves, risking injury to law enforcement and other involved individuals.

In response to these concerns, some states and local jurisdictions have passed laws limiting the use of no-knock warrants. In some cases, judges may require law enforcement officials to show specific evidence of potential danger or risk to justify the use of a no-knock warrant.

Anticipatory Search Warrant

An anticipatory search warrant is a type of search warrant that authorizes law enforcement officials to conduct a search at a specific location at a future time, based on the anticipation that evidence of a crime will be present at that time. In other words, the warrant is issued in advance of the actual search. To obtain an anticipatory search warrant, law enforcement officials must establish probable cause that the evidence will be present at the time of the search, as well as the specific conditions that will trigger the search. For example, a search warrant may be issued in advance for a package containing drugs that is expected to be delivered to a certain address at a specific time.

Once the anticipated conditions are met, such as the delivery of the package, law enforcement officials may execute the search warrant and search the specified location for the anticipated evidence. Anticipatory search warrants are subject to the same legal requirements and limitations as other types of search warrants, including the requirement for probable cause and specificity in the description of the location to be searched and the items to be seized. Anticipatory search warrants can be a useful tool for law enforcement in situations where it is difficult to obtain a search warrant in real-time, such as when a suspect is about to flee or evidence is about to be destroyed. 

Blood Search Warrant

A blood search warrant is a type of search warrant that authorizes law enforcement officials to take a blood sample from an individual suspected of a crime in order to test for the presence of drugs, alcohol, or other substances in their bloodstream. law enforcement officials must demonstrate to a judge or magistrate that there is probable cause to believe that the individual has committed a crime and that there is reason to believe that a blood sample will provide evidence of the crime.

The warrant must specify the location where the blood sample will be taken, the method of extraction, and the purpose of the search. Typically, a qualified medical professional, such as a nurse or phlebotomist, will perform the blood draw. It is important to note that blood search warrants are a highly intrusive form of search and seizure, as they involve a physical intrusion into the individual’s body. Blood search warrants may be used in a variety of criminal investigations,, however DUI’s (Driving und the influence) are the most common reasons for blood search warrant applications.

Wiretap Warrant

Because various states require two party consent to record a conversation, A wiretap warrant may be required when speaking or recording an individual’s voice without their permission, even in public. A wiretap warrant is a type of search warrant that allows law enforcement officials to intercept and record conversations through electronic communication devices such as telephones, computers, or other forms of digital communication. Wiretapping is typically used in criminal investigations involving serious offenses such as drug trafficking, terrorism, or organized crime.

To obtain a wiretap warrant, law enforcement officials must demonstrate probable cause to a judge or magistrate. This may include evidence of ongoing criminal activity or reasonable suspicion that a particular person is involved in criminal activity. The judge will then determine whether the evidence provided is sufficient to justify the use of wiretapping and issue the warrant if appropriate.

Once a wiretap warrant is issued, law enforcement officials may intercept and record conversations on the targeted communication devices. The recordings obtained through wiretapping can be used as evidence in criminal trials. It is important to note that wiretapping is highly regulated and subject to strict legal requirements, including the need for ongoing judicial oversight and limitations on the duration and scope of the wiretapping. 

Tracking Warrant (Ping/GPS)

A tracking warrant, also known as a GPS, ping or a cell site location warrant, is a type of search warrant that authorizes law enforcement officials to track the location of a person’s mobile phone or other electronic device in real-time. Law enforcement can also use this type of warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle or vehicles to track their movements and destinations. law enforcement officials must demonstrate to a judge or magistrate that there is probable cause to believe that tracking the device’s location will assist in the investigation. The warrant must specify the device to be tracked, the method of tracking, and the duration of the tracking.  Tracking warrants may be used in a variety of criminal investigations, including drug-related offenses, terrorism cases, and other serious crimes.

A Sneak and Peek Warrant

A sneak and peek warrant, also known as a “delayed notice warrant” or a “covert entry warrant,” is a type of search warrant that authorizes law enforcement officials to enter and search a property without immediately notifying the owner or occupant of the search. Sneak and peek warrants are typically used in situations where immediate notification could jeopardize an ongoing investigation, such as in cases involving terrorism, organized crime, or drug trafficking. They are also used in cases where notifying the owner or occupant of the search could lead to the destruction of evidence or endanger law enforcement officials. To obtain a sneak and peek warrant, law enforcement officials must demonstrate to a judge or magistrate that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the delayed notification is necessary to the investigation.

A Trash pull warrant

A trash pull warrant is a type of search warrant that authorizes law enforcement officials to search through the garbage or trash of a suspect or a location in order to gather evidence related to a criminal investigation. This may include discarded mail, documents, drug paraphernalia, or other items. Trash pull warrants are generally considered to be less intrusive than other types of search warrants, as they involve searching through items that have already been discarded.

Border search warrant

A border search warrant is a type of search warrant that authorizes law enforcement officials to conduct searches at or near the border of a country, typically for the purpose of enforcing immigration and customs laws or preventing the entry of contraband. Border search warrants are unique in that they allow for searches without the need for probable cause or a warrant under certain circumstances. Under the “border search exception” to the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement officials are allowed to search individuals and their belongings at the border or within a reasonable distance of the border without a warrant or probable cause.

However, in some cases, law enforcement officials may seek a border search warrant to conduct a more extensive search or to search beyond the immediate border area. Border search warrants are subject to the same legal requirements and limitations as other types of search warrants, including the requirement for probable cause and specificity in the description of the location to be searched and the items to be seized. However, they may involve a broader scope of authority due to the unique nature of border searches.

Conclusion

In conclusion, search warrants are an important tool for law enforcement to investigate crimes and gather evidence, but they must be obtained and executed in accordance with the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Probable cause is a critical element in the process of obtaining a search warrant, as it establishes the legal basis for the search and seizure of evidence. Additionally, search warrants must be specific in describing the place to be searched and the items to be seized, and they must be executed in a reasonable manner

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By Branden

Branden is a Police Lieutenant who has investigated numerous crimes. He has written and executed multiple search warrants, conducted various protective sweeps, pat frisks and exit orders. He has been involved in numerous police vehicle chases, fights, disturbances, foot pursuits, suspect/hostage negotiations and felony stops. He is trained with an assortment of weapons. He has spoken with countless victims, witnesses and suspects and is using his experience to better protect our communities and loved ones by sharing his knowledge through his writings.

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