A search warrant allows law enforcement to search you, your home or your business. Search warrants can be issued for a person, a residence, a business or almost any other type of location, such as a car, yard or outbuilding.
No one is prepared for an onslaught of police officers showing up at your home or business intent on searching through your rooms, belongings or your person; and carting away you, your possessions, documents, or another person from your property.
The search warrant is a formal order issued by a court and signed by a judge, or magistrate, that allows police officers or agents to enter the home or place of business. A valid search warrant must describe the exact place to be searched and the person or the things that may be taken. The warrant allows officers to enter the location without your permission and whether you are present or not.
In most cases, the search must be executed between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. and officers must knock or announce themselves before entering your home.
What To Do When You Are Served a Search Warrant at Your Home
- It is very important to say as little as possible. Having your home searched is an extremely stressful and frightening event. You don’t want to say or do anything that may cause you legal harm later.
- While you need to cooperate by letting officers search, do not grant permission to search the location or any related areas. This could invalidate the limited areas the officers are allowed to search, and your ability to possibly challenge the warrant later.
- Follow police instructions. They will likely keep you or others from entering or leaving the property and may restrict people in your home to one area of the property. Do not interfere with their search.
- After the search is complete and officers have left, don’t touch anything or clean up until you take photos or video of your home. This may become important evidence later about your rights; or about what, how, or where something was found and seized.
- Consult with a criminal defense attorney right away even if no charges have been filed against you or you have not been arrested. The search indicates you are at least under investigation and you want an attorney to protect your rights and to defend you in any future law enforcement action. Your attorney can possibly have some or all of the evidence seized during the search “suppressed,” or excluded.
During the search, police can only seize the property or person described in the warrant. If in the course of their search they come across evidence of illegal conduct in plain view during the search, but not listed in the warrant they may be able take possession of that evidence as well.
Police get a search warrant by showing to a judge “probable cause” to obtain a valid search warrant. That is, they must show evidence or witness statements that lead them to believe you have committed a crime, or are about to commit one. The evidence establishing probable cause is presented to the judge under oath, usually in the form of an affidavit that details the law enforcement observations or witness statements that justify the warrant.
The suspect is not present during the process of obtaining a warrant so the person cannot dispute the evidence or the issuing of the search warrant. However later you may be able to challenge the validity of the search warrant, and may even be able to have the evidence collected deemed inadmissible, or “excluded.”
What To Do When You Are Served a Search Warrant at Your Business
Most executives and employees are completely unprepared or trained to deal with law enforcement officers showing up at the business with a search warrant. The process can confuse and shock employees, which may cause them to say or do something that could expose you or your business to criminal or civil liability. It is especially important that managers or employees assert, and do not waive, important rights when presented with a search warrant.
The warrant will likely allow officers to take away original business records. That could impact your ability to continue doing business. Many businesses make it a habit to store copies of essential business records offsite in case of some disaster. That practice could also prove valuable in the event of a search and seizure event.
- No one expects to be searched, but it can happen. As a best practice, always keep attorney-client documents marked and separate from general business operations documents. Otherwise these may be seized with other non-privileged documents.
- Do not agree or give permission to search anything. Officers try to get consent, which may serve to inadvertently broaden what they are allowed to search for, or limit the ability to suppress or exclude evidence later.
- Request identification of the officers presenting the warrant.
- Request a copy of the search warrant. Review it carefully to understand what areas are to be searched.
- Ask that the officers wait until your counsel can be contacted before they search. Call your corporate counsel out to the site or get your attorney on the phone to speak with officers.
- Do not resist or obstruct the search. Observe the search and take notes about what is searched and seized.
- Send employees not involved in the search home. This will limit the opportunity for officers to interview employees who are experiencing a confusing and stressful event.
- Inform officers that the company would like counsel present during interviews of executives or employees. In California you have the right to have corporate counsel present during interviews. You cannot instruct your employees not to talk to officers if they voluntarily want to do so, however the search warrant does not entitle officers to interview employees. They are not required to talk to officers. Keep in mind everything you or your employees say can be used against the employee, you, or the business no matter what the officer says.
- Get a receipt for any items or documents that were seized.
- After the search take pictures or videos of offices or areas that were searched.
- Consult with a criminal attorney immediately to protect your rights during a possible criminal investigation,. Your criminal attorney will advise you on what to do next and the possibility of excluding certain items seized from being used as evidence against you.
David A. Stein defends clients in criminal enforcement actions brought by Orange County prosecutors, and state and federal agencies. He is a distinguished criminal defense attorney and trial lawyer. He has a track record of successfully defending criminal cases, often getting charges dismissed or winning acquittals in jury trials. Call the Law Offices of David Steinat 949-445-0040 or email confidentially online.