The Definition and Function of Search Warrants

By Erick Babin posted 03-11-2020 10:55

  

In an ideal world, the police would always conduct a search in conjunction with a warrant. However, there are times when this is impossible, and for this reason, there are exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant. That does not mean that the police can search people with impunity, because, without probable cause, a search is rendered illegal.

A search done without probable cause is a Fourth Amendment violation, and it can get the officer involved and the department they work for into a lot of trouble. Several departments have had to pay out huge settlements to citizens who fell victim to an illegal search.

What is a search warrant?

A search warrant is a document that permits a police officer to conduct a search of a person, place, or vehicle. The warrant is compiled by the police or the District Attorney’s office and presented to a judge. 

The judge makes a determination on whether there is probable cause to justify the search. If the judge decides that this is the case, then they sign the warrant, and it becomes a legally binding document.

A search warrant stipulates exactly where the police wish to search and what they will be looking for during the search. For locations, they must supply a fixed address, and for a vehicle, they will need to supply a description of the vehicle as well as its vehicle registration number. 

The warrant also states what items the police believe they will find consequent to the search, such as a murder weapon, money, or drugs.

Can the police search for items other than those on the warrant?

Police brutality lawyers say that the police may only exceed the bounds of the search warrant under exceptional circumstances. These include the protection of the officer or a member of the public’s safety or as a means to prevent the destruction of evidence. 

The police can also seize evidence not referred to on the warrant if it is in plain view during the search.

What makes a valid search warrant?

Under the law, a warrant must comply with certain conditions to make it legal and valid, according to USAttorneys.com. First, the warrant should be based on probable cause. Second, the officer should file the warrant in good faith, basing it on reliable information. 

Third, the warrant must be specific about what the search is for and where it will be conducted. Fourth, the judge signing the warrant should be impartial; there should not be the faintest hint of impropriety on the part of the judge.

Circumstances under which a search warrant is not required

There are exceptions to the laws that require a search warrant. These limitations on a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights have been tested by the courts on several occasions.

In one such case, the plaintiff contested the automobile exception, which allows the police to search a vehicle if they have good reason to believe there is contraband in the vehicle. In Collins v. Virginia (2017), the justices ruled in the police’s favor, thereby upholding the automobile exception.

The need for a search warrant is furthermore negated when the evidence of a crime is in plain sight or when there are exigent circumstances that require the officer to search for and seize the evidence without delay. 

This could be to safeguard the evidence from destruction. During an arrest, police are entitled to search the suspect’s person. They may also search someone who gives permission for the search to take place. During a hot pursuit of a fleeing criminal, the police may enter a residence without a warrant to endeavor to apprehend the suspect.

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