Know Your Rights 101 – Warrants and Searches

This will be the conclusion of our “Know Your Rights 101” series of informational posts on knowing your basic constitutional rights and how to interact with law enforcement.

What are your rights if the police show up at your house and demand to conduct a search?

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…

In the two hundred years plus since that amendment was ratified, courts have interpreted that to mean that no searches can take place without a warrant. However, just like the other rights we’ve already talked about, a number of exceptions to what seems like a pretty straight forward rule have been developed.

We won’t be talking about the exceptions much, but instead focusing on what to do if the police show up at your house and want to search.

The first thing you always need to remember:

  1. If the police ask to search your car, your home, your office, or your person, you do not have to let them.

That doesn’t mean they may not conduct the search anyway, but if you give them permission to search, there is not a judge in the land who will rule it was unlawful. If they ask you if it’s okay to search any of these things, tell them NO, not without a warrant.

Now warrants seem straight forward enough, but the basics first. There are two types of warrants. A search warrant (which allows the police to enter the place described and look for and take any items described in the warrant) and arrest warrants (which give the police permission to arrest the person and take them into custody).

An important consideration:

  1. An arrest warrant does not give the police permission to search your home or car, and a search warrant does not give the police the right to arrest you.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Police can search any place where someone might be hiding, for instance. Also, if any contraband or evidence of a crime is in plain sight when they are making an arrest, they are allowed to take that evidence.

On that same note, if the police find what they are looking for during a search, they may be able to take you into custody if they find enough evidence to justify an arrest.

You also have a right to ask the police to see the warrant, whether an arrest or search warrant. It should have a judge’s name and signature on them. It should have that day’s date. It should have details and specifics about either the place to search or the person who is being placed under arrest.

Word to the wise: even if you think the warrant is bunk, it will not help your cause to fight with the police about it. The time and place for that are in a court of law, and arguing with the police about the sufficiency of the warrant will only make your situation more difficult. As hard as it may be, be polite, don’t run, and calmly ask to see the warrant.

One point of clarification:

  1. Even if the police have a warrant, it does not mean you have to answer any questions!

This is very, very important, and goes back to your right to remain silent. Whether they have an arrest warrant or a search warrant, tell the police you won’t be answering any questions without an attorney, and that you are choosing to remain silent to any of their questions.

What do you do if the police knock on your door?

  1. Do not open the door right away!

You never, ever, ever have to open the door for the police. First, ask the police through the closed door if they have a warrant. If they say they do not, tell them you will not open the door until they have one, and remember you do not have to talk to them any further!

If they say they have a warrant, ask to see it through a window or a peephole. Even if they have what looks like a valid warrant, do not give them permission to search the house. Step outside the door and close it behind you (and it goes without saying, make sure there is nothing illegal they can see when you open the door or they may be able to enter the home with or without a warrant).

Take a look at the warrant and see if there are any mistakes, such as the wrong address. Even if it looks ok, you can still tell them, “I am not giving my consent to any warrantless search.”

You can also ask to call an attorney at this time and speak to them. Don’t interfere with any search, but don’t give your consent.

Ask if you can watch the search, and if you’re allowed to, you should.

Last thing to keep in mind:

  1. Even if the police say they will go get a warrant if you don’t agree to let them in and search, do not give consent!

They may not succeed in getting a warrant. They may be bluffing with some standard police trickery. Either way, if you give them permission to search then they do not need a warrant.

And last but not least, don’t ever voluntarily give up any of these rights (or the other rights we talked about) without first speaking to an attorney.

We hope you enjoyed this series and that it hopefully helps you if you run into a situation with the cops in the future.

Got any questions or us, or an experience with the cops you’d like to share? Hit us up in the comments below!

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