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Local View: Wake the judge! Actually, getting search warrants is getting easier

From the column: "I am sure seeing what I look like at 3:00 in the morning was horrifying for many of the poor officers."

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Our state and federal constitutions protect citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. In many instances, a search requires a warrant signed by a judge to be considered reasonable. For example, police might seek a warrant to search a residence where suspected drug sales have been observed. They might need a warrant to take someone’s blood following a car accident, if they suspect the person was impaired by drugs or alcohol. We sign a lot of warrants to do forensic searches of computers, cellphones, and social-media accounts, which often contain evidence of criminal activity.

This important function knows no time of day. For that reason, there is always a pair of judges in our district (St. Louis, Lake, Cook, and Carlton counties) designated as “on call” for after-hours warrants. A weekly list is provided to all law-enforcement agencies so they know who the primary and backup judges are for that week.

Technology has made this part of the job easier. When I first started this job in 2010, law enforcement would have to come to my house (or church or hockey arena or restaurant) with a paper warrant for signature. Now, I can electronically sign warrants through a secure computer connection on my laptop. This process is much faster for law enforcement and far more convenient for judges. Plus, I am sure seeing what I look like at 3:00 in the morning was horrifying for many of the poor officers. As long as I have my laptop and cellphone with me, I can sign a warrant just about anywhere.

The process of approving most search warrants is fairly simple. The officer submits the warrant and supporting affidavit in our “E-Charging” system, setting forth the facts of why they want to search a particular place, vehicle, or person. The affidavit will usually start out with the officer’s experience, training, and general information about where evidence is found in this type of case. Then the affidavit will turn to the specific facts pointing to a particular location or person as the subject of the search.

If the judge believes those facts establish “probable cause” to issue the warrant, he or she signs the warrant. If not, the judge rejects the warrant. Probable cause is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It is defined as sufficient evidence that a reasonable person would rely upon to believe a crime has been committed and that the person or place to be searched would possess relevant evidence to that crime. It has to be more than just a hunch. The judge can also ask the officer clarifying questions, but then that information should be reduced to writing and included in the affidavit.

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The warrant itself must be specific as to what items are to be seized and the person, places, or things to be searched. It is not uncommon that I will end up signing multiple warrants over a short time period on the same case, as the execution of one warrant can yield information for another place where evidence could be located.

Most officers are very apologetic when they call me in the middle of the night, and I usually consume a fair amount of caffeine the next morning, but reviewing search warrants is an important part of my job.

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Dale Harris of Duluth is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District.

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTSPOLICE
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