What Makes a Valid Federal Search Warrant?

Executing search warrants—of someone’s house, car, or place of business—is a common way for police to gather evidence of an alleged crime. Staring down the business end of a search warrant is rattling and should be concerning. After all, who would want state or federal authorities walking through their home and searching every corner? 

Adding to the perturbing situation is the tendency of federal agents to execute search warrants early in the morning. This catches many subjects of search warrants off-guard. Police rarely telegraph their intentions to execute a search warrant, so there’s little that many people could do to prepare. 

What Happens Before the Search Warrant?

In the federal court system, a district judge or magistrate judge must approve a search warrant before federal agents may use it to search property. Typically, judges only sign off on a warrant request if law enforcement agents present probable cause of a crime. Agents produce sworn affidavits detailing what they believe will be found in the property to be searched and how it connects to the alleged crime. For instance, special agents from the Criminal Investigation (CI) division of the IRS might identify computers or laptops used in a tax evasion case as well as back and other financial records. 

After law enforcement has received approval from a federal magistrate judge, the agents have a limited amount of time to execute the warrant. Generally, special agents have 10 days. Before executing the warrant, a variety of preemptive risk assessment measures will help determine the agency’s conduct leading up to warrant execution. For example, special agents who believe the subject has sophisticated weaponry will take extra precautions. 

You Hear a Knock on Your Door…

Special Agents generally must identify themselves, explain they have a search warrant, and ask you to open the door. As long as you comply and let the federal agents inside your home, they should not break down your door or otherwise forcefully enter your property. 

Once inside, a special agent should provide you with a copy of the search warrant. Fortunately, a search warrant is not supposed to be an invitation for law enforcement to turn your home inside-out and go on a fishing expedition. Law enforcement agents must continuously search a property once they lawfully gain access. Unduly lingering at a  property without searching is not typical protocol. 

How Should You Behave During the Search? 

It’s natural to feel panicked and fearful. However, don’t speak to anyone except your lawyer. Many people instinctively start speaking with their uninvited guests. You won’t talk the special agents out of searching your home, nor will your chat exonerate even if your are innocent of any wrongdoing.  As soon as you have a chance, call your lawyer. 

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people in the U.S. (outside of a border and other technical exceptions) from unreasonable searches and seizures. These are essential protections. However, getting served with a search warrant is an indication that an eventual arrest may be possible. Again, the importance of calling an experienced attorney as soon as possible cannot be overstated. Weisberg Kainen Mark, PL focuses on defending clients against white-collar charges and complex tax matters. Contact us soon to get ahead of your potential criminal case.

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Weisberg Kainen Mark, PL

As experienced trial lawyers with a passion for justice, our firm provides clients with compelling advocacy, attorney availability, and creative solutions to your tax or criminal law matters.

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