Search Warrants:

Our law demands that searches and seizures of property and people must be reasonable and based on probable cause, not mere suspicion. Actually, the 4th Amendment is pretty specific, stating that no warrant shall issue without probable cause. Therefore, when the police need to cross the line to invade a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy they must have a properly signed search warrant in hand.

A search warrant is actually the combination of three documents—an affidavit, the warrant itself, and a return of service.

The affidavit for a search warrant is the portion of the warrant stating the facts (probable cause) as to why permission to search a particular place, or person, should be allowed.

Affidavit for search warrant

In other words, the affidavit sets the grounds for issuing the warrant portion of the document. An officer must state (under oath) that the facts provided in an affidavit are the truth.

The four corners of a warrant refer to the actual paper itself and to everything written within the physical “4 corners” of the document. If a statement, fact, etc. is not included within the affidavit, the information may not be considered as part of the probable cause for issuing the warrant.

The search warrant is basically a court order to search a specific place for a specific item(s).

Search warrant

The “return” is simply the portion of the document (copies of the affidavit, the search warrant, the inventory list of items seized, and the official portion of the document stating the time and place of service and the signature of the serving officer.

Inventory and return

Probable cause is present “where the facts and circumstances presented would warrant a man of reasonable caution to believe that the items sought to be seized were in the stated place.”

To determine whether or not to issue a search warrant, a magistrate/judge only needs to ask himself/herself one question. Would a reasonably cautious person conclude that there was a “substantial basis” for the finding of probable cause? If the answer to the question is “yes,” then he/she may issue the warrant.

Information presented as probable cause must be current information that exists at the time the request is made for the warrant. For example, an officer may not request a search warrant based on activity she observed 30 days in the past.

Say NO to Those Anonymous Tips!!

Hearsay evidence may not be used to obtain a search warrant. I see this used all the time in books—the officer receives an anonymous tip regarding evidence hidden in a car or home, so the cop drives over and starts searching based on the tip. Doing so would definitely be an illegal search.

In addition, a search warrant would not, nor could it be issued based on “anonymous tip” we so often read about in some novels. Even when using information provided by an informant, officers must first establish the informant’s credibility. Has he supplied reliable information in the past? If so, how many times? Have the details of his information been verified by reliable sources, such as another police officer or person in good standing?

What information is needed within the 4 corners of the documents?

1. Place to be searched. The description of a location must be so precise that it would rule out any other place.

2. Person to be searched. Again, the warrant must be specific as to which persons are to be searched. Having a search warrant in hand does not allow a “search everyone” free-for-all for officers. However, officers may, for their safety, “pat down” everyone in the area. This is a search for weapons only.

3. Property to be seized. Once again, the warrant must be specific, and an officer’s search must be limited to searching for the items listed within the 4 corners of the warrant.

For example, if the warrant directs officers to search for a stolen refrigerator, then he may not search dresser drawers in the bedroom. Obviously, something as large as a refrigerator could not be concealed in a small drawer. However, if the officers are looking for a stolen diamond ring, then they may search anywhere within the house where a tiny ring could be hidden. Officers may seize any other illegal items found during the search, such as illegal narcotics.

In most instances, officers are required to “knock and announce” their presence when serving a search warrant. This means they don’t kick in the doors like you see on TV. Not at first, anyway. If the suspect does not answer the door within a reasonable amount of time (there is no set timeline, merely what the officer feels is reasonable at the time), then the door may be breached by whatever means is necessary to ensure the safety of the officers and to protect and preserve the evidence. Also, warrants are normally required to be served during daytime hours unless otherwise stated on the warrant (day or night).

When safety is at risk, officers may ask the judge/magistrate to issue a “No Knock” warrant, which allows them to break and enter the residence, hoping to catch the suspect(s) off guard. This is normally done when it’s suspected that the crooks are armed, or that they may destroy evidence before the officers could gain entry by first knocking and announcing their presence.


Informants: Gotta love-em

It was an extremely difficult and odd case, busting a woman whose brother had snitched on her to protect his own skin. Yep, threw his own flesh and blood under the bus the second the cuffs touched his wrists.

It started when I’d decided to do a little cold-calling, like an old-time door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. Picking the names of a few suspected drug dealers, I paid each of them a visit at their homes. The idea was to knock on the door, tell them my name and that I was a police detective (most already knew), and then ask if I, and my partners, could search their home, looking for drugs and illegal weapons.

You would not believe the number of idiots who say, “Yes, Officer. You may search my home because I’m a fine upstanding citizen and there are absolutely no drugs here. Honest.”

Anyway, I knocked on this guy’s door (let’s call him … ummm … Dumb Jimmy) and offered him my little speech about the drug problem in his neighborhood and that I’d like to search his house, with his permission, of course. I even told him that I suspected him of selling illegal narcotics.

Guess what? Yep … His narrow lips split into a wide grin. Then he said, “Come on in!”

He was unbelievably enthusiastic with the invitation, sounding like a TV game show announcer. “Come on in, Detective Lofland. You have the chance to win two ounces of the finest cocaine money can buy. And … an exciting trip to court! Yes, you and your fellow detectives could win an all expense paid trip to circuit court, where you’ll enjoy the company of some of the best thieves, murderers, and whores in the business! All this and more, IF the search is good.”

So Dumb Jimmy opens the door and waves us inside. The place was extremely neat and very clean. Sparsely furnished. He’d gone for IKEA chic, all blonde wood and solid colors of burlap-type upholstery. A few Ansel Adams prints dotted the walls. The room was open to the kitchen and a small but adequate dining area. The table there was dark walnut, topped with quite a bit of camera equipment. Nothing cheap, either.

Dumb Jimmy’s girlfriend sat on the couch with her feet planted on a glass-topped coffee table, watching TV. Never batted an eyelash in our direction. I understood. The People’s Court had that effect on most viewers—a must see.

I guess she’d forgotten, or didn’t care about the big bag of pot and the large bong sitting not two feet from her blue Converse tennis shoes. I turned to Dumb Jimmy and I kid you not, his first words were, “That’s hers.”

I spun him around to slip the jewelry on his wrists and that’s when he really started spilling his guts. Anything to get out of the mess he’d suddenly found himself in. I found myself wanting to make a deal with his girlfriend. I’d let her go if she’d find me some duct tape for her boyfriend’s mouth. He simply wouldn’t shut up.

“My sister’s got some heroin,” he said. “Acid, too. And probably some pot, mushrooms, and meth.”

“Is that all?” I said. What a dirtbag, rolling over his own sister. I’d meant it as a rhetorical question, but DJ (Dumb Jimmy) hadn’t taken it that way.

“Well, she’s usually got a bunch of Oxy or Percocet …” He scrunched his nose tightly until it looked like a tiny accordion, a gesture that caused his eyes to squint. His nose looked like a tiny accordion and I thought he was going to sneeze, but after a couple seconds passed I realized he was thinking, hard. He was actually trying to come up with even more things his sister had done wrong.

Suddenly, his eyes opened, wide. “Hey, what about Botox? That’s illegal, right? I mean, she shouldn’t be giving those shots to people, should she? Does it at home. Shoots ’em up right there in the living room. She steals the stuff from the doctor she works for. That’s where she gets the pills, too. Got a few of his script pads, too. Keeps them in her room with—“

I stopped him, pulling the Miranda card from my badge case. “I need to read something to you,” I said. “And you need to listen carefully. Then, if you still want to talk to me about your sister, you can.”

DJ nodded his head vigorously. “I want to help. And you’ll help me, right?”

His girlfriend shook her head from side to side, slowly. “What a dumbass,” she said.

I heard one of my partners agree with her. “Not him,” she said. “Me, for staying with that wimp.”

I spent the next several hours listening to DJ ramble on about his sister’s illegal activities, deciding that he was probably being pretty darn truthful. If so, we had a much bigger fish to fry. The prosecutor agreed and a deal was made. If all went as planned, we’d raid the sister’s house, arrest her, and DJ would testify against her in court in exchange for having all his charges dismissed.

Of course, the second the sister opened her front door and saw the search warrant in my hand, she immediately said, “My brother’s holding a lot of cocaine …”