Police must get a judge's written approval to conduct searches of private property in criminal investigations, unless the person in possession of the property consents to a search. These are called search warrants.
Search warrant filings thus are court-related public records, and they can have very detailed information on a criminal case being investigated.
For example, see this San Francisco Chronicle story about the details of a murder investigation disclosed in a search warrant.
Most courts assign a clerk to manage the files that contain the search warrants granted by judges to law enforcement officers.
These search warrant files are separate from the actual criminal court cases in which people are charged with crimes (search warrants often are obtained by police before any arrests or formal charges are filed in a case).
Local police agencies will file search warrants in county superior courts, while federal law enforcement officers (FBI, DEA, U.S. Customs, etc.) will file search warrants in U.S. district courts.
The search warrants are organized differently in different courts. An index usually is kept by date, and then within each date is a list of the addresses of the places approved to be searched that day. In other cases the index may just be numerically arranged by a number the court assigns for each warrant.
Search warrants are not indexed according to the names of the people whose property is being searched or seized, which can make it difficult for a reporter to track down the files.
Thus you’ll often need to ask a law enforcement officer or a prosecutor for the search warrant file number, or for the date a search was approved by a judge and a description of what was searched, in order to dig the search warrant records out of the court clerk's files.
Search warrants have to be obtained to search everything from a residence or business to a vehicle or other personal property, such as a storage facility or a bank safety deposit box.
Search Warrant Filings
Here's what's in a search warrant file:
- The application for the search warrant filed with a judge by a law enforcement officer describing what property the officer wants to search.
- An affidavit prepared by the law enforcement officer detailing the criminal case being investigated and the evidence that exists against the person whose property is to be searched. The affidavit is required to demonstrate there is probable cause that a crime has occurred that justifies conducting the search.
- A list of items being sought in the search. Police can't just search for anything, they must specify what they're looking for and the items must be related to the criminal case being investigated.
- The judge's order approving the search warrant.
- An inventory of what was taken by authorities during the search. This inventory is usually referred to as a return on the search warrant.
The search warrant and related documents should be filed with the clerk's office within 10 days of conducting the search, and often are filed sooner.
Law enforcement officials also can get a judge’s order sealing a search warrant. Usually this is done if the search warrant affidavit contains sensitive information that would jeopardize an investigation if made public.
Sample Search Warrants
- David Letterman extortion case - Smoking Gun website