Serving search warrants can be one of the most exciting and one of the most dangerous actions a law enforcement officer may undertake during the course of his or her career. Proper search warrant service can also mean the difference between completing a case successfully and obtaining a conviction and having your suspect walk away without being convicted. In addition to tactical and safety considerations, law enforcement officers must be prepared to gather, maintain, transport, and enter evidence in accordance with that officer’s evidence management system. The officer must also be sure that he or she has the necessary materials and personnel to serve a successful warrant. By following a few simple guidelines when serving search warrants, law enforcement officers can exponentially increase the odds of a safe and successful search warrant service which will in turn, increase the odds of a successful prosecution.
Preparation for the Search Warrant
Your investigation is coming to a close, your search warrant has been signed by a judge or magistrate, and you are ready to begin preparing for the execution of the warrant. An important first step in preparing for the execution of your search warrant is developing an operational or tactical plan. There are many considerations to make when developing your operational or tactical plan. Does the suspect or anyone else at the location have a criminal record? Are there known weapons at the location? Are there dogs or other potentially dangerous animals at the location? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it may be worth contacting your agency’s equivalent of a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or Special Response Team (SRT) to see if they are willing to execute the warrant for you. Do you know where the nearest hospital to the search warrant is located in case there are injuries during the execution? Do you have enough personnel to successfully execute the warrant? All of these issues must be considered and annotated on your operational or tactical plan. After your operational or tactical plan is finished, it is always a best practice to have at least one supervisor review your plan and acknowledge that it is complete.
Depending on the crime you are investigating and the type of evidence you believe you will be seizing, you need to be sure that you have the proper materials to gather and transport the evidence. Do you have enough boxes/evidence bags to package and transport any seized evidence? Will there be any electronic evidence items such as computers or hard drives to seize and will these items require special packaging to avoid damage? What type of forms will you need to ensure the successful execution of the search warrant? Depending on any evidence control systems your department or agency may have in place, you may need multiple copies of multiple forms to establish a proper chain of custody. Other items you may need include tape, a sketch pad, a video or still camera, and plenty of pens and pencils. If you do decide to make a digital audio or video recording of any part of the search warrant, you must consider the need you may have for audio redaction software and/or video redaction software after the execution of the search warrant is complete. It is always better to have too many supplies and not need them than to have too little supplies and be caught without them.
The Execution of the Search Warrant
The day of the search warrant execution has arrived. Your team is assembled, your supplies are gathered, and you are ready to go. It is important at this point to make sure that all team members participating in the search warrant execution know what their roles will be before, during, and after the execution of the warrant. Who will physically execute the warrant and who will wait on the perimeter or the location or at an offsite location until the scene is secured? Who will search for, gather, and catalog evidence and who will interview any suspects or witnesses at the location? If digital evidence is to be retrieved, can you be sure that the officer responsible for doing so is familiar with your department or agency’s forensic evidence management system? If arrests are made, who will transport any prisoners to be booked? When all team members are clear about their roles and responsibilities, the odds of a successful search warrant execution increase exponentially.
Search warrants are an integral and necessary part of any criminal case progression. When executed properly and with respect for the Fourth Amendment rights of any citizens that may be affected by the execution of said warrant, search warrants can provide invaluable evidence that can make or break one’s case. Law enforcement officers must be sure above all else that they have done everything in their power to avoid overlooking factors that may lead to the injury of anyone involved with the execution of a search warrant. Officers must also ensure that they have the proper supplies and adequate personnel required to successfully execute the search warrant. Finally, the officers involved with the execution of the search warrant must be aware of and be comfortable with what is expected of them during the search warrant execution. By properly preparing for and communicating with fellow officers, any law enforcement officer can be successful in the execution of a search warrant.