Your Rights and Search Warrants

April 20, 2010

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One question we often hear is whether citizens are required to comply with a search warrant presented by the police.

In short, yes, you are.

Search warrants are very specific documents that are signed by a judge, and are served by a law enforcement officer. They give the police permission to look for certain items on your property.

An officer or detective cannot just show up at your house and search your property. They must first present compelling evidence to a judge that warrants further investigation. The judge then signs the search warrant, and they are allowed to conduct their search. If you refuse to allow the police to search, you will then be arrested and your property will be searched anyway. Your best bet is to comply if faced with a signed warrant by a judge.

On the other hand, the police are not just allowed to search your property without a warrant. If a law enforcement officer shows up at your house and asks if they can search it, you have the right to say no. The officer must produce a written warrant, again signed by a judge, stating what property is to be searched.

The documents are very specific, the officer will not be allowed to search every nook and cranny throughout your property. For example, if the warrant says they may search your car, that does not give them the right to search your garage or your house.

“Probable cause” is related to search warrants, and is the only time the police are allowed to enter your home or car without a warrant. If the officer has “probable cause,” it means he or she believes a crime is being committed at that moment, and waiting for a search warrant would be too late. The officer cannot just say they have a hunch or “gut feeling” to conduct this kind of search. They must actually have knowledge or belief that a crime is being committed to search any property not covered in a warrant.

The bottom line is that a search warrant is very specific and it is always signed by a judge. The law says you must comply with the warrant. Anything less is just not a warrant, and requires your permission.

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