A search warrant is a court order that authorizes police to a search a location, person, or vehicle for specific items linked to a crime. An officer submits under oath a written affidavit to a magistrate or a judge. The search warrant gives law enforcement officers the right to enter a home or business and confiscate any evidence they find. Every search warrant must be based on a “probable cause” - a police officer’s realistic belief that a crime was committed or is about to take place.
Search warrants protect people’s right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” as per the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Their purpose is to keep citizens safe from unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by government entities. If police officers violate the Fourth Amendment, the proof resulted from an illegal search is not admissible in court – a rule known as the “exclusionary rule”.
The Fourth Amendment's requirements don’t apply to private individuals, though. Therefore, any evidence a person seizes during their own, private, unauthorized search, would still be valid in court.
Being legal documents, search warrants must meet certain requirements:
Only by complying with these points and limitations, a search warrant is lawful; therefore, the evidence obtained could be admissible in a trial.
In some unexpected or exigent situations, law enforcement officers can enter a property to conduct a search without a search warrant. These are known as exceptions from the Fourth Amendment and they are in case of consent to search, life-threatening circumstances, searches incidental to an arrest, inventory/impounded vehicles, “open field” - items plainly visible to the police or caused by the “hot pursuit” of an escaping criminal. If the police officer has your consent, it must be voluntary – they cannot attempt to trick you or coerce you in any way.
When proof was obtained without a valid search warrant, and none of the exceptions above applies, the evidence could fall under the “exclusionary rule,” and should be excluded from admission in a court of law.
If the access to the property is restricted – for instance, you refuse to let them in – police is allowed to reasonably force their way in. While searching for the proof they’re after, policemen can go through your personal belongings; they’re allowed to empty drawers or move furniture without having to put everything back where it was before the search started. If during the search, they damage your property for no reason, the evidence they obtained could not be used against you in a court of law.
First, police officers have the duty to show you the warrant - therefore do not hesitate and ask to see it. They can only force the door if they suspect you could be violent towards them. As soon as they enter your property, they’ll do a safety check to briefly evaluate who is within the premises.
If they have reasonable grounds to suspect you’re carrying weapons, they might conduct a “protective pat-down search” with their hands. Remember, their purpose is to track down the items listed in the warrant. During this time, you can keep a record of what’s happening - what and how they are doing what they’re doing. Take photos, notes, or videos. In case you’re not detained, ask them if you’re free to leave and seek a lawyer as soon as possible.
Even if you’re the subject of a search, remember, you still have rights, for instance: the right to know what is happening; the right to leave - unless you’re being detained or arrested; if you are arrested, you have the right to call or talk to a lawyer, and the right to remain silent and not answer any questions.