A search warrant is a court order issued by a judge or magistrate judge that authorizes law enforcement officers to conduct a search of a person or location for evidence of a crime and to confiscate evidence if it is found.
Jurisdictions that respect the rule of law and a right to privacy put constraints on the powers of police investigators, and typically require search warrants, or an equivalent procedure, for searches conducted as part of a criminal investigation. An exception is usually made for "hot pursuit": if a criminal flees the scene of a crime and the police officer follows him, the officer has the right to enter a property in which the criminal has sought shelter. Conversely, in authoritarian regimes, the police typically have the right to search property and people without having to provide justification, or without having to secure the permission of a court.
Generally, a law enforcement agency planning to execute a search warrant will make preparations prior to entry to a premises. The officers involved in the search will attempt to gather information obtained from reliable sources, such as undercover police officers or informants, as to the layout of the premises to be searched, and the location within the premises of the items for which the search is conducted. When there is a flight risk involved, officers will try to surround the premises, guarding all doors, windows, and other possible escape routes.
Search warrants are issued by a magistrate and require a constable to provide evidence to support the application of the warrant. In the vast majority of cases where the police already hold someone in custody, searches of premises can be made without a search warrant under Section 18 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), which requires only the authority of an inspector.
United States of America
Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, most searches by the police require a search warrant based on probable cause, although there are exceptions. Any police entry of an individual's home always requires a warrant (for either search or arrest), absent exigent circumstances, or the free and voluntary consent of a person with reasonably apparent use of or control over the property.
Under the Fourth Amendment, searches must be reasonable and specific. This means that a search warrant must be specific as to the specified object to be searched for and the place to be searched. Other items, rooms, outbuildings, persons, vehicles, etc. may require additional search warrants.
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