Warrants: how you serve them. (For the cops out there.)
I'm a garden-variety cop. My phone number is not zero, and I'm not a Billy Badass. I believe that I am competent at my job, though, and one aspect of that job is case development and evidence-gathering. Another is making arrests of those whom I have proven had sufficient probable cause to be taken to jail. If the event was on-view, I arrest them then and there. If I put the P.C. together after the fact, I get a warrant, and go arrest them later.
I list here the steps to getting a warrant, because it seems like there are those who don't follow them, sometimes, and they make the news. Maybe we need to publish a primer, or something. So here's mine:
The first step in getting a warrant is to soundboard your plan against a competent cop. Sometimes this is your boss. Sometimes it's a peer with another agency. But explain what you're trying to do, and what evidence you have, and ask him or her to review your plan to check it for blind spots or subjective assumptions. This is not just about being a professional-- it's about being fair to the suspect and to the system. Sometimes an investigator will miss a glaring reason why either:
1) The charge is incorrect or less appropriate than another charge,
2) The suspect is exempt from the charge due to statute or case law
3) The investigator needs to recuse himself from further investigation due to a conflict of interest.
4) Reason X, which hasn't been thought of yet.
Lots of cops don't do this, because they don't want to look like they're not capable of handling it by themselves. I used to be like that. Trust me: the seasoned cop soundboards, and does a better job because of it.
A second step (which is not necessary in my jurisdiction but which is a very good idea) is to run your proposed action by the local assistant District Attorney. He or she can often give advice about the procedure which is helpful (after all, they're the ones you're asking to prosecute the case in court). Just as importantly, though, you're getting a D.A. to sign off on your case, and take ownership of the case. This definitely helps.
A third step, in the service of a Search Warrant or Search And Arrest Warrant on a property is to go get photographs of exactly what you plan to search. Is it the shed behind 101 Main St? Get a few digital photos of it. Attach them to your Probable Cause Affidavit for your search warrant. Describe the property carefully in the first paragraph of the Warrant Affidavit.
Go take the affidavit and the warrant (You should have a generic warrant form on your thumb drive and on an office computer. Don't have one? Get one, right now. Save it. Make it editable. Don't wait until you need it; that's too late. Ask your D.A.) to the judge or magistrate. Swear to it, and get the warrant. Attach the photographs to it. Make a copy of the warrant for the property owner/manager/tenant.
SERVE THE WARRANT YOURSELF.
I'm not saying "serve it all by yourself." But you will physically be there. Even if you need to assemble a team of 20 snake-eating Professional Operators (tm) to help you, you will be present when that warrant is served. You will brief everyone helping you on what to expect, and what you're trying to accomplish. "They got the wrong address" is not an acceptable excuse. In such an instance, you, the investigator obtaining the warrant, have personally failed.
You will see that everyone on the warrant service team is attired in an easily-recognizable police uniform. Warrant service is not the time to go Office Casual. This is the time for badges displayed, patches displayed, and large patches with the name of your agency presented prominently. You will all carry police identification as well, which you will gladly present if at all possible to do so safely. Every officer present on the warrant service team will be identified, and their role given, on the call for service or incident report.
You will make contact in a courteous, professional manner with the homeowner or resident or manager, and state your business. You will present them with a copy of the judge's order to search the specified property. You will then make clear that you are going to follow that order at that time. While there is a clear imperative, here, this does not have to be an adversarial dialogue. Be respectful to that citizen; you work for him or her.
Document how you go about this. Roll video, with audio. I like car video, backed up by body cameras.
Secure the scene. Be courteous but direct. Screaming "Get On The Ground" and pointing weapons at people who happen to be there is not courteous. Don't point weapons at people just because you're serving a warrant and they're present. You need to be able to articulate why they were a threat before you point a weapon at someone. I'm serious about this.
As I've written before, don't serve No-Knock Warrants unless there's a hostage present.
Leave a list of what you took as a receipt for the resident or manager. Have a scribe keep the list during the search, and photograph what you took and what the condition of it was.
Send a return to the judge or magistrate, showing that the warrant was served, and what you seized.
Lots of cops say, "that's above my pay grade." "That's for the detectives." "That's just the way I was shown how, and we don't have time for that."
Fellow peace officers, a search warrant is a very specific exception to rights held by our citizens. Take it seriously. Do it right. Even if you don't do them, know HOW to do them. If learning how is too much trouble, then go find other work, please. We've got this.
Let us be professionals.