Contrary to the belief of some, and to the image that’s often 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. FYI – the entries and searches we see each week on many crime TV shows are, well, totally unrealistic.
A search warrant is issued pursuant to an affidavit, a document stating each and every fact that establishes the probable cause to legally search for certain people and items. Simply put, the officer seeking a search warrant must apply for it by filling out a form, a sort of application. This “application” is the affidavit. An affidavit must clearly explain every single reason why the officer wants/needs to go inside someone’s house without the owner’s permission, and by breaking down the front door if necessary.
Affidavit for search warrant, written by Detective David Collins, Hamilton Ohio Police Department.
Swear, under oath
Normally, the officer must swear to (under oath) the facts listed in the affidavit.
Details to include in an affidavit
- 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, though—, 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. (Keep in mind that some courts allow electronic submissions).
Signed search warrant
When and How
- 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, 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—.”
Exceptions to Knock and Announce
Typically, search warrants are to be served in the daytime unless specified differently within the body of the warrant, such as in the warrant pictured above.
There are situations when warrants must be served under the cover of night.
The exceptions to the knock and announce rule (“no-knock” warrants) occur when/if the officer has good reason to believe that:
- There is a clear and present danger to himself and anyone else present, including people inside the house.
- The delay of entry would cause irreparable harm to the investigation (evidence would/could be destroyed).
The easiest way to serve a search warrant, of course, is to knock on the door and wait for someone to answer. Not only is the knocking method the easiest, it’s by far the safest means of serving a search warrant. After all, bad guys rarely play by the rules, so safety is a top concern.
No one’s home but us chickens!
If no one answers the door within a reasonable amount of time police officers are legally permitted to damage property, if that’s what is required, to gain entry. What’s a reasonable amount of time? Courts have ruled that a few seconds is considered reasonable—15 seconds or so. This all depends upon the circumstances at the scene, though. For example, when the officers announce their presence and then hear sounds—people running, overturning furniture, toilets flushing, glass breaking, etc.—that would lead a reasonable person to believe that evidence is being destroyed, they may enter immediately.
A search warrant in hand means cops can search EVERYWHERE, right?
Once inside, however, 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 searching for a stolen refrigerator, investigators may not open and paw through underwear and sock drawers. 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 they sift through the unmentionables.
When the search is complete, officers must finalize a detailed inventory of all items seized. A copy of the inventory is left with someone at the location, or at the home/business.
Search warrant inventory
Copies of all paperwork are filed with the court.
Search warrant service is not for the faint of heart. It’s dangerous, and not knowing what’s waiting on the other side of the door is nothing short of nerve-wracking. But that’s no secret. However, there’s a side of search warrant service that most people on the outside of law enforcement never hear of, and this tidbit of information could a fantastic detail to insert into a story.
Think about it for a moment … entry teams show up unannounced. This means residents do not have time to tidy up, clean up, dress up, wash dishes, and hide things they prefer that others do not see. And that means cops “see it all,” and they, unfortunately, must sometimes handle things they wish they could erase from their memories (yuck).
Believe me, sometimes you want to double-glove your hands before touching some of the things people keep 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. So feel free to think the worst and then multiply that times 1000. Remember, some items use batteries, and those batteries are kept inside battery compartments. Those chambers must be searched for contraband (no stone unturned, right?). So … whatever sort of device that’s discovered in a nightstand, or between mattresses, must be physically examined by officers. This means actually holding the item in one hand while opening the battery compartment with the other. I know … yuck.
Roaches, roaches, and more roaches!
I should also mention the roaches—roaches on the ceilings and walls, on the stove, on dishes, in the dresser drawers, on the beds, on the sheets, in the crib, and on the BABY! Thousands of roaches scurrying throughout the house. Roaches that fall from above like summer raindrops when you shine a flashlight in the bedroom closets. You’re inside the house for less than a minute when you find roaches crawling on your pant legs and across the tops of your shoes. Roaches. Roaches. And more R.O.A.C.H.E.S. It’s skin-crawlingly disgusting.
Gotta have a a stomach of steel
Here’s a lesson learned the hard way. When in the midst of a search and you see half-empty roll of toilet tissue on the floor beside a dish-towel-covered five-gallon bucket that’s sitting all by itself in a far corner, well, just never, ever lift the towel. I’m sure your imaginations will once again come in handy and help figure out this scenario.
*Fun fact – When serving search warrants it’s best to try the doorknob 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 and waited for his legs to rejoin the party. That’s when someone decided to try turning the doorknob … it was unlocked.