Many people familiar with the criminal justice system, or even those who have seen crime dramas or movies, may be familiar with the word “warrant,” but may not fully understand what it is.  Generally, a warrant is the name of a document that police get in order to perform a search, seizure, or arrest.

The United States Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution each require a warrant for any search or seizure, but there are certain circumstances that judges have held police do not need a warrant for.  Some situations are perfectly legal for police to arrest or search without a warrant, under the United States Constitution, but the New Jersey Constitution may have higher protections for its citizens and requires a warrant anyway. Our New Jersey criminal lawyers explain more below.

Types of Warrants

A warrant is used any time the police want to search a place, seize a thing, or arrest a person.  All of them are basically the same in general form: they are a piece of paper, signed by a judge, that lays out the reason for the search, seizure, or arrest, including a specific explanation of why the police have probable cause to perform the search, seizure, or arrest.  “Probable cause” is an evidence requirement.  For a search and seizure, probable cause means that the police will be likely to find the things they are looking for.  For an arrest, probable cause means that the person probably committed the alleged crime.  This is a relatively low standard, but under any type of search, seizure, or arrest, it is still the minimum level of proof that must be met for a legal search, seizure, or arrest.

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A search warrant is the name of a warrant used for the search and seizure of objects.  There is no point in searching a place for items if the police cannot also take the items away, so a “search warrant” covers both the search and the seizure.  In order to get a search warrant, police must show a judge that they think some evidence of a crime is likely located in a place, and they must list the specific things to be seized and the specific places to be searched.

An arrest warrant is the warrant used to place people under arrest for the commission of a crime.  When police investigate a crime, they must go to a judge with their proof that the defendant committed the crime, then get the warrant before they can place the defendant under arrest.  Arrest warrants can be used to enter the defendant’s home and arrest them there, if the police have reason to believe the defendant is home.  To arrest the defendant in a public place, the arrest warrant is also enough, but to arrest the defendant in someone else’s house, the police must also have a search warrant to enter that house.

Other types of warrants include a “bench warrant.”  These may be referred to as “traffic warrants” if they are related to traffic incidents, but they have the same effect: a judge issues an arrest warrant from the bench (the name of their seat in a court room).  A bench warrant is used to bring someone into court to have them address an issue.  Whether that issue is pending criminal charges, a series of unpaid traffic tickets, or other court proceedings, a judge often has the authority to issue a bench warrant to have police arrest someone and bring them into court.

Do Police Need a Warrant in New Jersey?

There are many situations where a police officer does not need a warrant for a search, seizure, or arrest.  These usually fall into some administrative category, such as the ability to search your things when you are brought into jail.  Others are under a category called “exigent circumstances,” or “exigencies.”  Exigencies are situations where going to a judge to get a warrant would be too slow.  The following are examples of common exigent circumstances:

  • Hot pursuit – an officer chasing a defendant may enter a home without a warrant to affect the arrest
  • Health or safety – an officer may enter a building without a warrant in order to protect health or safety, e.g. if he hears a woman screaming, “He’s stabbing me!”
  • Preventing the destruction of evidence – an officer may enter a building or seize evidence in order to prevent it from being destroyed, e.g. if he hears a defendant shredding documents or flushing drugs

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One big situation to watch out for is cell phones.  Under Riley v. California, police have no exigent circumstances to search a cell phone and must get a search warrant.

Contact an Atlantic City Criminal Lawyer

If you have been involved in a police search, seizure, or arrest, and then charged with a crime, you may want to hire an attorney.  There are many things that a police officer could have done improperly, especially if you were searched or arrested without a warrant.  If you need an experienced criminal defense attorney in South Jersey, or are concerned about the criminal process after being arrested in New Jersey, contact the Law Offices of John J. Zarych at (609) 616-4956.