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Suppose the police come to my door. “Open up,” they say. “We have a warrant to search the premises.”

How can I tell if they are telling the truth? Do they show me the warrant? If they do, how do I know I am looking at one? What does a real search warrant look like? I could not find a single example online.

(In the U.S. there is some sense in which it doesn't matter, because if it later transpired that the claimed warrant didn't exist, the fruits of the search could be suppressed. That is not the question I am asking.)

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    google image search for your state is probably the way to go.
    – Tiger Guy
    Feb 28, 2023 at 18:04
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    Does this answer your question? Search Warrant Verification Feb 28, 2023 at 18:14
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    You are entitled to have the police person read the warrant to you before you admit them.
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 28, 2023 at 18:21
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    @BlueDogRanch Thanks for the reference. That article is helpful but does not answer my main questions, which are: What does a search warrant actually look like? How can I recognize one? Feb 28, 2023 at 18:23
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    This is closely related, but not in my view a dupe of the linked thread. Feb 28, 2023 at 19:33

2 Answers 2

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The exact form used can vary based on the court. At the federal level, the Administrative Office for the US Courts has a standardized form, although I don’t know that district courts have to use it. State courts obviously wouldn’t be expected to use the federal form, and I’m having a harder time turning up a blank state warrant form.

The standard elements are in the federal form, though. A search warrant will have a header identifying it as a search warrant and will have something identifying the court that issued it. It will be signed by some sort of judge. The body of the warrant will be written as a command to the police to do a search, telling them where to search and what to look for. There will generally be some standard language about what to do with the property once it’s seized.

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    With respect to "do they show me the warrant", is it not the case that the police are expected not only to show (a copy of) the warrant, but also to give a copy to the resident? Other respondents suggest that there may even be an obligation for officers to read the warrant to the resident under some circumstances. Mar 1, 2023 at 15:37
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    Popehat was commenting, when Mar a Lago was searched, that yes, Trump (or his attorneys) would be given a copy... after the raid had been concluded. This is in part because they'd also hand over a copy of another document - the list of property seized. Mar 2, 2023 at 6:59
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So it's going to vary from state to state, but typically a warrant will be presented as a printed document on white paper. The may be a letter head or official symbol at the top.

As per the documents content, a Warrant should list the property that is to be searched, the evidence they expect to find (usually evidence of a specific crime), and any personal property they intended to seize for forensics lab work (Often this will be phones or computers, as they will run searches to test, but vehicles or even smaller items that could have been used in the crime will be seized as well.). It will also have the signature of the judge who authorized the warrant.

In most of the U.S. the organization delivering the warrant will either be the county Sheriff (usually a deputy, not the Sheriff themselves, in 47 states, the sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer in the county and while duties vary from county to county, almost all Sheriff's are responsible for enforcing the civil law of the state within their county (which 9/10 times, is enforcing what a judge says). 2 states do not have Sheriff's, Viriginia sheriff's have no jurisdiction in parts of their county that have a municipal police force so it gets weird. Additionally, most major cities with their own police forces might do the heavy lifting of the search while one single deputy hands you the paperwork) if it's a state crime (the vast majority of crimes in the U.S. are prosecuted by the state) or the FBI and/or some combination of federal law enforcement agencies AND/OR the U.S. Marshals (U.S. Marshals are the equivalent of the Sheriff in the Federal Courts, although usually they lack general investigation capability that the FBI, so if they bother to show up, it's just to be official. The Marshal's typical duties revolve around tracking fugitives, protection of federal court assets, and the witness protection program, so if they show up, you will probably be leaving with them.).

At either rate, if someone claims to be with any law enforcement organization and has a warrant, it's best to comply (again, unless it's a "no knock" they can read the warrant before you have to open up.).

Regardless, in the U.S. police must provide you with a copy of the warrant with little redaction (done for the purposes of preserving investigation integrity.). They must tell you the evidence they are searching for and the places they are authorized to search (If they search places they are not authorized to search, that's a warrantless search.). Additionally they can open up any containers in the searchable areas so long as it is reasonable that such a container could hold evidence they are searching for (so if they were looking for stolen Big Screen TV's and open up a sugar bowl and find Weed, which they weren't looking for, that weed isn't admissible, since you should know better than suspect a Big Screen TV is being hidden in a sugar bowl. They can still seize the weed, since it's contraband, but they can't use it as evidence for a possession charge. Do not argue about this, because those statements could be used against you for possession charges. Take the win).

Because each state (50), territory (5), district (1), and the federal government each have different court systems, there are easily 57 different formats the warrants can take, to say nothing of other special governments such as tribal reservations, some of which have their own independent court systems with the full authority akin to a state court system, it's best not to look for a clear identifying mark (Fun fact: The age old question of "if you kill a man on the four corners, who can prosecute, the answer is "all seven of them" since the four corner's monument marks the meeting point of four state borders, and sits on the border of two tribal reservations with full court systems and crosses state lines, which brings in the feds. You can be convicted for the same crime seven times because Double Jeopardy only applies to one court system trying you twice for the same crime. They might be a slight pause to determine if everyone can do something, since the actual marker may not be on the actual location of the four borders as it's poorly surveyed.).

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    @Joshua Not how it works. If a crime is committed in both State A and State B, and State A holds the trial first and acquits, State A and only State A may not hold a second trial. But State B may try the defendant for the same crime.
    – hszmv
    Mar 1, 2023 at 12:06
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    This is a bit of a tangent, but my understanding is that the location of the Four Corners Monument defines the meeting point of the four states, and so the monument is exactly where that meeting point is by definition. (Source: "Why the Four Corners Monument is in Exactly the Right Place" at NOAA) Mar 1, 2023 at 20:26
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    Just to take that tangent further, I'm now wondering if the jurisdiction of a gun murder is determined by where the killer pulls the trigger, or where the bullet hits the victim. Mar 2, 2023 at 2:30
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    @NerdyDeeds Yes, the evidence would be inadmissible in court. There are cases I'm aware of where cops executed no-knock warrants on the wrong address and ended up getting shot by a lawful gun owner and the shooter was never charged, since the cops didn't have right to be there (luckily the cop was injured and not killed).
    – hszmv
    Mar 2, 2023 at 12:45
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    @NerdyDeeds — in US, evidence obtained in violation of your rights is (supposed to be) inadmissible against you. If the evidence can be used against some other party, that person has no standing to raise the violation. Moreover, as the saying goes, you can beat the rap, but you cannot be the ride: sometimes corrupt LEOs use illegal searches to oppress and harass people they don’t like. Yeah, you aren’t arrested, or you are released in a day or two, but all your belongings are in heaps. Mar 2, 2023 at 21:00

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