How do police get a search warrant, and what does it mean?

If the police show up at your door, demanding to be let inside so that they can search your home, do you have to let them in? Not necessarily. If they have a search warrant signed by a magistrate or a judge, you do have to let them in, but the terms of the warrant itself may limit where they can look and what they can look for.

What is a search warrant?

A search warrant is a court order that allows law enforcement to search a particular location for evidence of a crime. To get a search warrant, police go before a judge or magistrate and present an affidavit showing that they have probable cause to believe they will find evidence of a specific crime at a specific location. If the court finds the affidavit sufficiently specific, it will generally issue the warrant.

“Probable cause” means, essentially, that the police have reasonable information to support their belief that they will, more likely than not, find the evidence they are looking for at the location. This information typically comes in the form of a police officer’s own observations or the statements of an informant.

For instance, a police officer might have been investigating an alleged drug ring for some time, and come to the belief that the ring was using a specific storage locker to store illegal drugs. Similarly, the police officer may have received a tip from someone within the drug ring who has informed the authorities of the location and contents of the storage locker. In either case, the police would have to provide the court with sufficient reasonable information to support their claim before the court will issue the warrant.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us from “unreasonable searches.” The warrant requirement is intended to ensure that police searches are reasonable. However, there are exceptions to the warrant requirement, and there are places and situations in which courts give the police much more leeway in making a search. Generally, courts see the need for a warrant as greatest when police want to search a person’s home.

Despite these protections, police do overstep their authorities in searches. If police have abused their power in searching your property, they have infringed on your constitutional rights. If you and your attorney can show that the police violated your rights, you may be able to suppress the evidence from trial, so that it cannot be used against you in court.

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