Anyone that’s watched television has at least a vague notion of the purpose of a search warrant. In general terms, a search warrant is provided by a judge and authorizes law enforcement personnel to search for specific items at specific location during a specific period of time.
For example, a search warrant might allow the police to search your residence on August 23rd, between the hours of 8 AM and 8 PM for cash, drugs, and drug paraphernalia.
How do the police even get a warrant?
The burden is on the police to convince a judge that there is sufficient reason to believe that evidence of a crime is present at a specific location. This is commonly referred to as probably cause. Law enforcement attempts to convince the judge with evidence, observations, and written/oral statements. The judge has the final decision.
What can the police actually take?
The police are limited to the scope of the warrant. The search warrant might limit the search to the basement of a property. It might include the entire house or just the detached garage. The police are usually limited to seizing only items listed on the warrant. For example, they can’t search for cocaine if the warrant is for firearms. In many jurisdictions, the police can confiscate illegal items, such as illicit drugs, even if those items are not listed on the warrant, if the items are in plain view.
Is a search warrant always required for the police to conduct a search?
There are few ways the police can search your person or your property without a warrant:
1. If you give consent. The police do not need a warrant if they have your permission. Keep in mind that the police are under no obligation to provide notice that you have the right to refuse the search. The police officer is not permitted to be coercive.
2. The items in question are in plain site. Anything visible in your yard, through your home or car windows. This also applies if the police officer is in your home or business for other reasons and sees something in plain sight.
3. In cases of emergency. If a police officer needs to enter your vehicle to provide first aid, anything illegal seen by the officer may be seized. If you flee from the police into your home during a pursuit, the police can enter your home and seize items that are seen during the arrest process.
To be safe, never submit to a voluntary search. You have nothing to gain and perhaps much to lose. For example, you can never be 100% certain that a current or past passenger in your car hasn’t left behind drug paraphernalia other illegal items. Be clear that the police do not have your permission for any search.
That being said, do not attempt to physically interfere in any search, even an illegal search. The police may have information that justifies the search. Be sure to contact a qualified attorney.