Contrary to the belief of some, and to the image that’s sometimes portrayed on television, police officers cannot enter a private residence without a warrant or permission to do so. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but the exceptions to this one are few and far between, and must be utilized only in dire emergencies.
A search warrant is valid only if it is issued pursuant to an affidavit stating each and every fact that establishes the probable to search for certain people and items. For example, the officer who is asking for a search warrant must apply for it by filling out a form, a sort of application, called an affidavit. This application (affidavit) must clearly explain every single reason why she wants to go to inside someone’s house without the owner’s permission, by breaking down the front door, if necessary.
Normally, the officer must swear to (under oath) the facts in her affidavit.
– The description of the place to be searched must be in vivid detail, almost down to the size and color of the doorknob. (I’m exaggerating—not much—, but you get the idea).
If a judge or magistrate approves the warrant, he/she signs it and hands it over to investigators for service.
– Search warrants must be served promptly. Normally, there is a three or four day rule. If officers wait longer than that time frame the search may be ruled invalid.
– In most cases, officers are required to knock and announce their presence. (Knock, knock. “This is the police. I have a warrant to search this house. If you don’t open the door I’m going to huff, and puff, and—“ Well, you get the idea).
The exceptions to the knock and announce rule (“no-knock” warrants) are if the officer has good reason to believe that:
1) There is a clear and present danger to himself and anyone else present, including people inside the house.
2) The delay of entry would cause irreparable harm to the investigation (evidence would be destroyed).
The easiest way to serve a search warrant is to knock on the door and wait for someone to answer. This is definitely the safest way to serve a search warrant. Unfortunately, the bad guys don’t always play by the rules.
Also, warrants are to be served in the daytime unless specified differently in the body of the warrant, such as in the actual warrant pictured above).
If no one answers the door within a reasonable amount of time (Normally a few seconds – 15 seconds or so) police officers are legally permitted to damage property, if that’s what is required, to gain entry.
Once inside, officers may only search for the item(s) listed on the warrant, and they may only search in areas where those items could be found. For example, if investigators are searching for a stolen refrigerator, they may not open and paw through underwear and sock drawers. However, if the item they’re seeking is small (a piece of jewelry or drugs), then they may search from chimney top to basement floor and everywhere and everything between. That’s when you sift through the unmentionables.
When the search has been completed, officers must complete a detailed inventory of all items seized. A copy of the inventory is left with someone at the location, or at the home/business.
Copies of all paperwork are filed with the court.
Believe me, sometimes you want to double-glove your hands before touching some of the things residents have tucked away in drawers, between mattresses, under the bed, and beneath pillows. Even then, a gallon of disinfectant never seems to be enough to clean your hands after a particularly distressing search.
Unfortunately, you can never remove the images from your mind. Honestly, seeing adult-size baby clothes, whips, chains, Catwoman suits for men, blow-up dolls dressed as Madonna and Elton John, half-empty tubs of Vaseline, an assortment of elongated and heavily-bruised fruits and vegetables, and brightly-colored wiggly things that buzz, jiggle, jab, and rotate at the accidental touch of a switch…well, let’s just say that I’m heading straight to my shrink after writing this piece…
*Fun fact – When serving search warrants, it’s best to try the door before wasting precious time and energy. I once saw an officer, a guy who claimed to be a top martial artist, kick, and kick, and kick a heavy steel door, trying to gain access to a drug dealer’s home. In fact, the door-kicking cop wailed away at the barrier so many times that his face turned beet red, he was sucking wind like a marathon runner, and he stated that his legs were so tired they felt like worn-out rubber bands. He finally sat down in the grass waiting for his legs to rejoin his body as useful members. That’s when someone decided to try the door…it was unlocked.