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Warrants: what they are and why they are important

Most of the non-judicial world's experience with warrants falls under the entertainment category. Really, the general population's judicial knowledge typically comes from the dark corners of "Law and Order," the serial-killer saviors of "Criminal Minds," or the terrible punch lines of "CSI: Miami." There always seems to be some drama around getting a warrant. "Come back with a warrant" says the cocky criminal. What they don't show, however, is a citizen's guide to understanding warrants. 

Warrants come in several different shapes and sizes--most commonly arrest warrants, search warrants and bench warrants. Each of these is some kind of judicial order signed by a judge to allow for the justice system to do its thing. According to the 4th Amendment, each of these must be issued with probable cause, which of course refers to a measurable level of belief based on some sort of evidence or thought that a particular person has committed a crime.

Search Warrants are simply that--they allow authorities to search a person or property. They need a warrant, the person's consent, or the consent of a roommate if he or she is absent in order to search your property. If they want to search a workspace, they only need consent from your employer. When they do search a space, they are allowed to take anything from the space pertaining to or identified in the warrant. They do not, however, have the authority to make an arrest with a search warrant unless they find enough glaring evidence to do so.

An Arrest Warrant deals with, well, arrests. It has many of the same qualities as a search warrant, but instead allows law enforcement to search places where you might be hiding - but they may not search for evidence in those spaces.

Bench Warrants are the third most common type, but we rarely seem to hear about these. These are again signed by a judge, but issued in court allowing officers to obtain someone who has avoided appearance in court or not responded to an already issued summons or a subpoena.

What do I do if officers come to my house?

If police officers knock on your door, chances are they would like to search your property. Those looking to arrest you might not be so kind as to knock (depending on the crime). But wait! Don't open that door just yet. You need to ask a few questions first.

  • Do you have a warrant? Ask this before even opening the door. If not, try not to act like they do on the TV shows, but respectfully ask them to leave. Do not answer any questions, and do not let them in.
  • May I see it? Ask them to slide the warrant under the door. Look over it and make sure it has the name of the judge, your name, your address, the date, the place and items they're looking for, the probable cause, and finally the agency that is doing the searching or arresting. If it doesn't have your name, it should have an accurate description of you.
  • Either, "please, come in" or "I do not consent to a search." If you warrant is complete, resisting will only create more legal trouble for yourself and they will still search your stuff. You can, however, ask to speak with your lawyer and you are in no way required to answer any questions, whether or not they search or arrest you. If the document is inaccurate, inform them of your lack of consent. They may, however, search anyway. If this happens, call a lawyer immediately and take down the names and badge numbers of every officer you can. Also, pay attention to what they take and have any others present do the same. That information will come in handy in the future.

Remember: In no way should you answer any questions or allow them to search your home if they do not have a warrant. Also be sure to be polite, and nonviolent, even if the law enforcement officers are searching or arresting without a warrant. These things will only help you later in the judicial system. Finally, always call your attorney at Anaya-McKedy, P.C. to get you ready for that battle.

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