Warranted: search warrants

Today we continue our exploration into the complicated world of warrants. This time it’s search warrants.

A search warrant gives police the power to look through private property for evidence or contraband. A search warrant has to be specific about the place to be searched and the items to look for. Once police have a valid warrant, they can enter the premises and look anyplace the items might reasonably be. If they’re looking for a stolen car, they can’t check dresser drawers. But if they’re looking for something small, like drugs? They can look pretty much anywhere.

Generally speaking, police are supposed to knock and announce their presence before serving a warrant. This is to protect everyone. If you owned a gun and someone came crashing into you house in the middle of the night, you might easily shoot (or be shot) before realizing they were the police. However, if police believe that knocking and announcing will present a danger to them (or someone else) or might endanger the evidence, they can request a no-knock warrant. Then they can just come barging on in (which does sometimes end up with people getting killed).

The courts have drawn up a long list of situations in which warrantless searches are allowed. Probable cause is still needed in most of these cases, but police need not get a warrant. A sampling of these warrant exceptions:

  • Automobile exception—police don’t need a warrant to search an automobile or anything in the auto. This applies to other forms of transportation as well.
  • Search incident to arrest—if a person is placed under arrest, police may search anything within her reach, even if she’s in cuffs.
  • Plain view—police don’t need a warrant to search items within plain view (or plain smell). So if a cop is legally inside someone’s house and happens to spot evidence or contraband sitting out, that’s fair game.
  • Emergency—if there’s an immediate threat to anyone’s safety, or if police are in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon, they can enter without a warrant.

Want a plot bunny? Police get a no-knock warrant to search Claude’s house. However, before they can serve the warrant and while the warrant is still valid, Claude moves out and Deirdre moves in. Cops come crashing into Deirdre’s house in the middle of the night, she’s terrified and confused and reaches for a weapon, cops shoot her.


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