John Wesley Hall

What does the law require when it comes to search warrants?

On television and in the movies, officers walk up to the door of someone's home, dramatically present them with a search warrant and brush past them as they begin to look for whatever evidence they came to find. That one piece of paper holds a great deal of power in both Hollywood fiction and real life.

A search warrant allows law enforcement agents to breach the privacy of your home or another location in which you may have an expectation of privacy under the law. The courts take your right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment seriously, which is why there is a process in place to ensure that when federal, state or local government officials want to conduct a search, they must first meet certain requirements.

Obtaining a valid search warrant

When your Constitutional rights are at stake, the word of a police officer or investigator shouldn't be enough to risk denying you those rights. For this reason, when a law enforcement official goes before the court to request a search warrant, he or she must establish probable cause for the search and potential seizure.

The circumstances and facts must provide a reasonable basis for an official's belief that a crime is about to take place or did take place and evidence of it exists at the location identified in the application. In addition to establishing probable cause, the search warrant must also contain the following information:

  • Enough information about you that a reasonable person would identify you as the person in the warrant
  • Enough information about the location that a reasonable person would identify it as the one in the warrant

The officer must also swear an oath in good faith that the information contained in the warrant is "true to the best of his or her knowledge." The officer must swear to the court that the warrant contains no intentionally or knowingly false information. Only after the application and warrant meet with these requirements will an impartial court issue the warrant.

It's not as easy as they make it look on TV

As you can see, it isn't as easy as Hollywood makes it look. In reality, police and investigators must have valid reasons and reliable information before going before an Arkansas court to obtain a search warrant. The court only has the information on the warrant application to go by. What if that information is wrong? Most police officers follow the rules, but some bend or even break them. What if an alleged witness lied or some error made the evidence point to you?

If officials show up at your door with what appears to be a valid search warrant, you must comply. However, you may want to take immediate steps to ensure that your constitutional rights are not violated during the search, the seizure of any alleged evidence and any proceedings that follow.

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