Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

Street Law /

Search Warrants: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Directions

A search warrant is an order signed by a judge that allows the police to look in a specific place for a specific item at a specific time. In order to get a search warrant, the police must persuade a judge that they have "probable cause" to believe they will find evidence of criminal activity in the place to be searched. Police officers do this through an affidavit, which is an oral or written statement made under oath. In the affidavit, they identify the place to be searched, the reason it is to be searched, and the items that are to be seized. If a judge believes that a police officer has demonstrated "probable cause" that he will find the items, the judge will issue the search warrant. If the judge does not believe that "probable cause" exists he will not issue the warrant.

In the activity that follows, you will walk through the process of obtaining a search warrant.

  1. Your teacher will divide the class into groups of two and will give each group a scenario to read. (Some groups will have the same scenario.) Your teacher will also assign one person in each group to one of the following roles:
    • Police Officer
    • Witness
  2. The police officer and witnesses read the scenario and will answer the questions that follow the scenario.
  3. The police officer will interview the witness, who will describe any "suspicious behavior" she has seen to the police officer. (In some scenarios, the witness will play more than one role). The information in the scenario provided will serve as a basis for the witnesses, but she may embellish the details as appropriate. If the situation merits a request for a search warrant, the police officer will complete an "Application and Affidavit for Search Warrant." If the situation does not merit a request for a search warrant, members of the scenario should discuss why.
  4. Each group of two will now form a group of four with another set of partners. The "witnesses" will trade places and will now serve as judges. If the lawyer has an affidavit to submit, she will give it to the judge. If not, she will explain to the judge why she did not submit one.
  5. The judge will review the "Application and Affidavit for a Search Warrant" and determine whether or not there is probable cause for a warrant. The judge will complete the first page of the "Search Warrant Form" explaining why or what additional information he would need in order to grant the request.
  6. Each group will present the outcome of its scenario to the class and will explain what transpired and why. 
Follow-up Questions
  1. In which scenarios did the police officers request a search warrant?

  2. In which scenarios did the judge issue a search warrant?

  3. Why were warrants issued in some cases but not in others?

  4. In situations where warrants were not issued, how did the police obtain evidence?

Scenario 1

Residents in Las Vegas, Nevada are complaining about one of their neighbors. They believe that the adults living in the corner house of Caroline Way are involved in something illegal. The neighbors notice cars coming and going at all hours. Most of the time single men drive the cars. These men spend very little time in the house before leaving, often carrying a package with them when they leave. Additionally, the children living in the house appear sad and malnourished. They are frequently playing in the back yard during school hours and walk around the neighborhood wearing little more than their underwear. When interacting with each other, the children use very mature language, often peppering their comments with profanity. At school, the children's teachers notice that they have trouble sitting still and often complain about not feeling well. Witnesses to this suspicious activity include the next-door neighbor and the nurse at the children's elementary school.

Questions to Consider
  1. What illegal activity might the parents be involved in? List two possibilities below.
  2. List three pieces of possible evidence to support each of the above predictions.
Scenario 2

In a quiet neighborhood outside of Chicago, Illinois a middle-class family has begun to spend money as if they were rich. The wife, a stay-at-home mother of two, traded her Ford station wagon for a BMW SUV. She purchased three platinum and diamond rings for her right hand and a huge emerald and diamond ring for her engagement finger. Furthermore, as the weather has gotten colder, a fur has replaced her wool coat. The father, a manager at the local Bank of America branch, recently bought a snowmobile and a mint condition 1957 Corvette. At school, the kids have been bragging to their friends about skiing in Switzerland. Witnesses to this suspicious activity include the next-door neighbor and the mother of the children's best friend.

Questions to Consider
  1. What illegal activity might the parents be involved in? List two possibilities below. 
  2. List three pieces of possible evidence to support each of the above predictions.
Scenario 3

A wealthy businessman in San Francisco, California has a family with three beautiful children. He and his wife are well known for their philanthropic contributions to society. Recently, an article in a San Francisco newspaper featured the family and mentioned that they were worth about 500 million dollars. The weekend after the article appeared in the newspaper, the youngest daughter was at soccer practice in a city park. Mrs. Smith, who usually watches her daughter's practice, left for about 20 minutes to run some errands. When she came back, her daughter was nowhere to be found. Frantic, she asked the team coaches and parents at the practice if they knew where her daughter was. No one did, but one father, Mr. Cruz, mentioned that he had seen an unknown woman lingering near the water fountain at the far side of the field. Mrs. Smith called her husband in tears, wondering how she was going to explain the situation. However, when she reached her husband she did not need to explain. He told her that a letter was mailed to him that afternoon. It says, "We have your daughter. To get her back, you must contribute the following fee to the "HELP ME" organization: $25 million dollars. Collect the money, DO NOT call the police, and await further instructions." A witness to this suspicious activity includes Mr. Cruz, the soccer father.

Questions to Consider
  1. What illegal activity may have taken place?
  2. List three pieces of possible evidence to support the above prediction.
Scenario 4

A high-school senior at a New York prep school comes to class wearing brand new sneakers, an expensive shirt and very pricey jeans. A talented artist, he is known to take beautiful, dramatic photographs of people. Because he usually wears neat, but not new clothes to school, his classmates comment on his new look. He is pleased and tells them to wait and see what he has on tomorrow. The following day, he again comes to school in new clothes. In addition to the clothes, however, he also has on a new gold necklace and is seen in the cafeteria treating three of the most popular girls to lunch. When questioned about his new wealth, he says that he has gotten a job. At the end of the week, he drives to school in a new Jeep Cherokee. That weekend, he is spotted at several parties he has never before been invited to. At the parties, he is often seen in quiet conversation with other students where money exchanges hands. Witnesses to this activity include the high-school student's art teacher, the captain of the cheerleading squad, and the manager at the store where the boy claims to work.

Questions to Consider
  1. What illegal activity might the student be involved in? List two possibilities below. 
  2. List three pieces of possible evidence to support each of the above predictions.
Scenario 5

When visiting downtown Kansas City, Missouri you and your friend come across a woman on the street corner selling stereo equipment out of the back of her SUV. The equipment that she is selling is very high quality but she is selling it for less than half the price it would cost in a specialty store. When you ask how she is able to sell the equipment at such a low price, she tells you that the merchandise was previously owned, but assures you that it has been checked and is in excellent condition. Not wanting to commit to a purchase, you ask if she will be back next weekend. She says she will, but might not be in the exact location. During the week, you talk to your uncle who lives in Kansas City, Kansas. He asks if your community is having the same crime wave that his is suffering. You tell him no, and you ask for details. He says that homes in one of the more affluent neighborhoods are being burglarized. When you ask what is being stolen, he tells you jewelry and electronic goods. Although you think nothing of it at the time, when the weekend comes you again see the woman selling stereos and think twice. Witnesses to this activity include your friend and your uncle.

Questions to Consider
  1. What illegal activity may have taken place?
  2. List three pieces of possible evidence to support the above prediction.
Scenario 6

Bored one Saturday evening, you are sitting in your family room watching MTV and wishing your parents would stop arguing over whose turn it is to do the dinner dishes. As the VJ introduces the latest smash hit, you hear a screeching noise in your driveway, followed by the sound of wood splintering. Rushing outside, you come across two friends in a gorgeous bright red BMW with a personalized license plate that reads "Doc." Surprised, you ask, "What's up?" "The sky," the driver replies and tells you to get in the car "NOW." Ignoring the yelling of your parents, you hop in the car, figuring you are about to embark on a fantastic adventure. Once in the car, you ask your friend in the passenger seat where you are going. He looks scared, but answers bravely, "Anywhere our chauffer wants to take us." Careening around corners and running red lights, you get to the center of town before you notice the flashing lights of a police car behind you. Your friend ignores the police until you and the other passenger convince him to pull over. Witnesses to this activity are the two passengers; Doctor Rodriquez, whose red BMW is missing from the restaurant parking lot where he had parked it; the driver of another car that was almost run over by both the BMW; and the police car pursuing the BMW.

Questions to Consider
  1. List two illegal activities that may have taken place.
  2. List three pieces of possible evidence to support each of the above predictions.
< Mapp V. Ohio