Search Warrants: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

This lesson will discuss the use of search warrants in law enforcement investigations. After providing a definition of search warrants, examples of situations will be provided to further clarify when search warrants are necessary.

A Knock at the Door

Kevin has a history of committing petty criminal offenses. Most recently, Kevin has been selling stolen cell phones out of his home. Unbeknownst to Kevin, he recently sold one of his phones to an undercover police officer. Based on this transaction, the officer is able to secure a search warrant for Kevin's home to look for more stolen phones. Kevin is completely taken off guard when he answers the door and sees the police officer standing there with a search warrant in hand.

What is a Search Warrant?

A warrant is a legal document that is issued by a judge or authorized legal official for a number of different purposes. There are several different types of warrants including arrest warrants that authorize someone's detention by law enforcement officers, bench warrants that give law enforcement officers authority to bring an individual in front of a judge, and search warrants that provide law enforcement officers with the authority to search and seize someone's property.

Valid Search Warrants

In order to be valid, a search warrant must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, search warrants are guided by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution which protects citizens from being subjected to searches and seizures that are without cause. For this reason, any search and seizure that is conducted by law enforcement and done without a properly issued warrant is typically not considered to be lawful.

In addition to the protections offered by the Fourth Amendment, a valid warrant to search or seize property must meet additional criteria including:

  • The information on which the search warrant is granted is strong and reliable
  • the warrant needs to contain descriptive and specific information about what can be searched and what can be seized
  • the police officer that files for the warrant is doing so because he has a valid reason to do so
  • the person who issues the warrant (i.e. a judge) is an impartial authority

Is a Search Warrant Always Required?

A search warrant is not always required during searches and seizures, and specific exceptions are outlined in the law. These include:

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