Successful search warrants

Successful search warrants

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution affirms, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Here in the United States, laws founded on the Constitution and Bill of Rights protect us against warrantless searches and seizures, a practice commonly exercised over the American colonists by the British Crown.  As law enforcement professionals, we’re not only required to conduct warranted searches, but we’re sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

Evidence seized during the execution of a search warrant will be scrutinized, tested and challenged on many fronts. Advanced evidence management software with strict chain-of-custody and robust search capabilities will serve to strengthen an agency’s legitimacy and its credibility. Petitioning a search warrant requires us to prepare a search warrant affidavit and to support “by oath or affirmation” the facts contained within it. Before a warrant is issued, probable cause must be clearly established to connect a property or thing to be searched with the commission of a specific crime. Information gathered must be reliable and not based on hearsay. Furthermore, the law requires that the search warrant affidavit provides a description of the items sought in furtherance of the investigation, along with a particular description “of the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The description of the place (be it a residence, office or shed) must be sufficiently clear that a person unfamiliar with the case or investigation could locate it. Executing a search warrant at the wrong address, particularly a high risk warrant, negatively impacts both an agency’s budget and public image. Moreover, the affiant is compelled to include any information known to him/her that could potentially diminish probable cause. Since judges make issuing decisions based upon the known facts and circumstances of a case, deliberately omitting facts from the affidavit is a sure way to lose the search warrant and any evidence collected.

When is a search warrant required? It’s required when a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy and/or when something must be manipulated to obtain the evidence sought. In State of Arizona v. Rodney Joseph Gant, (July 7, 2007) the Supreme Court of Arizona stated its opinion:

In this day and age, when warrants can be obtained within minutes, it is not unreasonable to require that police officers obtain search warrants when they have probable cause to do so to protect a citizen’s right to be free from unreasonable government searches.

During the execution of a search warrant, officers cannot search for something where it could not logically be. This is what is referred to as the, “Elephant in the Matchbox Rule”. For example, officers shouldn’t be looking for a shotgun in a jewelry box. However, if the warrant includes valid items of evidence with a link to the shotgun, such as a receipt or a copy of its registration, the search would be valid. Taking photographs to develop detailed documentation during the service of a search warrant is highly recommended. It’s important to memorialize the time and date, as well as the search site address and associated case number, followed by general and detailed photographs.

Prior to the actual search, partitioning the site with labels will facilitate the effort. Let’s say we’re in a standard four bedroom residence with a living room, a den, two restrooms, and a garage. We can partition the residence as follows:

  • A - Master bedroom - northeast
  • B - Bathroom (master bedroom)
  • C - Guest room - southeast
  • D - Bedroom - northwest
  • E - Bedroom - southwest
  • F - Den
  • G - Living room
  • H - Guest bathroom
  • I  - Garage

The manner in which collected evidentiary items are labeled is up to the individual officer. Utilizing an evidence control form/sheet for each area and clearly labeling each form at the top helps to simplify the effort. More importantly, it will benefit the officer during trial testimony. In this example, Officer Joshua Stuart could label items of evidence collected from the master bedroom as follows:

Top of Evidence Control Form:          Master Bedroom A

  • JS1 - .40 Caliber Glock - Serial Number ABC123- Under mattress
  • JS2 - .40 Caliber Glock magazine (empty)
  • JS3 - .40 Caliber Federal brand cartridges (12) - From magazine
  • JS4 - .40 Caliber Federal brand cartridge (1) - From pistol chamber

In this example, it would be important to clearly identify the room and bed where the firearm was located, the removal of the mattress, and the condition of the weapon, such as the presence of a live cartridge in the chamber and the inserted loaded magazine. Of course, the firearm would necessarily be rendered safe and the ammunition packaged separately prior to submitting it into the Property and Evidence Unit. At the conclusion of the search warrant service, it’s essential to leave a copy of the Search Warrant and the list of property seized at the scene. This, too, should be documented thoroughly in photographs and entered into the agency’s physical evidence management software and digital evidence management software.

Utilizing best practices and accurate evidence management software enable law enforcement personnel to develop cases that stand up to scrutiny through a “Fourth Amendment lens.” When our cases can stand up to this scrutiny, we can protect the rights, not only of those involved in the commission of crimes, but more importantly, the rights of victims.