Execution of Warrants

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


Execution of Warrants.—The Fourth Amendment’s “general touchstone of reasonableness . . . governs the method of execution of the warrant.”177 Until recently, however, most such issues have been dealt with by statute and rule.178 It was a rule at common law that before an officer could break and enter he must give notice of his office, authority, and purpose and must in effect be refused admittance,179 and until recently this has been a statutory requirement in the federal system180 and generally in the states. In Ker v. California,181 the Court considered the rule of announcement as a constitutional requirement, although a majority there found circumstances justifying entry without announcement.

In Wilson v. Arkansas,182 the Court determined that the common law “knock and announce” rule is an element of the Fourth Amendment reasonableness inquiry. The rule is merely a presumption, however, that yields under various circumstances, including those posing a threat of physical violence to officers, those in which a prisoner has escaped and taken refuge in his dwelling, and those in which officers have reason to believe that destruction of evidence is likely. The test, articulated two years later in Richards v. Wisconsin,183 is whether police have “a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence, under the particular circumstances, would be dangerous or futile, or that it would inhibit the effective investigation of the crime.” In Richards, the Court held that there is no blanket exception to the rule whenever officers are executing a search warrant in a felony drug investigation; instead, a case-by-case analysis is required to determine whether no-knock entry is justified under the circumstances.184 Similarly, if officers choose to knock and announce before searching for drugs, circumstances may justify forced entry if there is not a prompt response.185 Recent federal laws providing for the issuance of warrants authorizing in certain circumstances “no-knock” entries to execute warrants will no doubt present the Court with opportunities to explore the configurations of the rule of announcement.186 A statute regulating the expiration of a warrant and issuance of another “should be liberally construed in favor of the individual.”187 Similarly, just as the existence of probable cause must be established by fresh facts, so the execution of the warrant should be done in timely fashion so as to ensure so far as possible the continued existence of probable cause.188

Because police actions in execution of a warrant must be related to the objectives of the authorized intrusion, and because privacy of the home lies at the core of the Fourth Amendment, police officers violate the Amendment by bringing members of the media or other third parties into a home during execution of a warrant if presence of those persons was not in aid of execution of the warrant.189

In executing a warrant for a search of premises and of named persons on the premises, police officers may not automatically search someone else found on the premises.190 If they can articulate some reasonable basis for fearing for their safety they may conduct a “patdown” of the person, but in order to search they must have probable cause particularized with respect to that person. However, in Michigan v. Summers,191 the Court held that officers arriving to execute a warrant for the search of a house could detain, without being required to articulate any reasonable basis and necessarily therefore without probable cause, the owner or occupant of the house, whom they encountered on the front porch leaving the premises. The Court determined that such a detention, which was “substantially less intrusive” than an arrest, was justified because of the law enforcement interests in minimizing the risk of harm to officers, facilitating entry and conduct of the search, and preventing flight in the event incriminating evidence is found.192 For the same reasons, officers may use “reasonable force,” including handcuffs, to effectuate a detention.193 Also, under some circumstances, officers may search premises on the mistaken but reasonable belief that the premises are described in an otherwise valid warrant.194

Limits on detention incident to a search were addressed in Bailey v. United States, a case in which an occupant exited his residence and traveled some distance before being stopped and detained.195 The Bailey Court held that the detention was not constitutionally sustainable under the rule announced in Summers.196 According to the Court, application of the categorical exception to probable cause requirements for detention incident to a search is determined by spatial proximity, that is, whether the occupant is found “within the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched,”197 and not by temporal proximity, that is, whether the occupant is detained “as soon as reasonably practicable” consistent with safety and security. In so holding, the Court reasoned that limiting the Summers rule to the area within which an occupant poses a real threat ensures that the scope of the rule regarding detention incident to a search is confined to its underlying justification.198

Although, for purposes of execution, as for many other matters, there is little difference between search warrants and arrest warrants, one notable difference is that the possession of a valid arrest warrant cannot authorize authorities to enter the home of a third party looking for the person named in the warrant; in order to do that, they need a search warrant signifying that a magistrate has determined that there is probable cause to believe the person named is on the premises.199

177 United States v. Ramirez, 523 U.S. 65, 71 (1998).

178 Rule 41(c), Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, provides, inter alia, that the warrant shall command its execution in the daytime, unless the magistrate “for reasonable cause shown” directs in the warrant that it be served at some other time. See Jones v. United States, 357 U.S. 493, 498–500 (1958); Gooding v. United States, 416 U.S. 430 (1974). A separate statutory rule applies to narcotics cases. 21 U.S.C. § 879(a).

179 Semayne’s Case, 5 Coke’s Rep. 91a, 77 Eng. Rep. 194 (K.B. 1604).

180 18 U.S.C. § 3109. See Miller v. United States, 357 U.S. 301 (1958); Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963).

181 374 U.S. 23 (1963). Ker was an arrest warrant case, but no reason appears for differentiating search warrants. Eight Justices agreed that federal standards should govern and that the rule of announcement was of constitutional stature, but they divided 4-to-4 whether entry in this case had been pursuant to a valid exception. Justice Harlan who had dissented from the federal standards issue joined the four finding a justifiable exception to carry the result.

182 514 U.S. 927 (1995).

183 520 U.S. 385, 394 (1997).

184 The fact that officers may have to destroy property in order to conduct a no-knock entry has no bearing on the reasonableness of their decision not to knock and announce. United States v. Ramirez, 523 U.S. 65 (1998).

185 United States v. Banks, 540 U.S. 31 (2003) (forced entry was permissible after officers executing a warrant to search for drugs knocked, announced “police search warrant,” and waited 15–20 seconds with no response).

186 In narcotics cases, magistrates are authorized to issue “no-knock” warrants if they find there is probable cause to believe (1) the property sought may, and if notice is given, will be easily and quickly destroyed or (2) giving notice will endanger the life or safety of the executing officer or another person. 21 U.S.C. § 879(b). See also D.C. Code, § 23–591.

187 Sgro v. United States, 287 U.S. 206 (1932).

188 Sgro v. United States, 287 U.S. 206 (1932).

189 Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603 (1999). Accord, Hanlon v. Berger, 526 U.S. 808 (1999) (media camera crew “ride-along” with Fish and Wildlife Service agents executing a warrant to search respondent’s ranch for evidence of illegal taking of wildlife).

190 Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85 (1979) (patron in a bar), relying on and reaffirming United States v. Di Re, 332 U.S. 581 (1948) (occupant of vehicle may not be searched merely because there are grounds to search the automobile). But see Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366 (2003) (distinguishing Ybarra on basis that passengers in car often have “common enterprise,” and noting that the tip in Di Re implicated only the driver.

191 452 U.S. 692 (1981).

192 452 U.S. at 701–06. Ybarra was distinguished on the basis of its greater intrusiveness and the lack of sufficient connection with the premises. Id. at 695 n.4. By the time Summers was searched, police had probable cause to do so. Id. at 695. The warrant here was for contraband, id. at 701, and a different rule may apply with respect to warrants for other evidence, id. at 705 n.20. In Los Angeles County v. Rettele, 550 U.S. 609 (2007), the Court found no Fourth Amendment violation where deputies did not know that the suspects had sold the house that the deputies had a warrant to search. The deputies entered the house and found the new owners, of a different race from the suspects, sleeping in the nude. The deputies held the new owners at gunpoint for one to two minutes without allowing them to dress or cover themselves. As for the difference in race, the Court noted that, “[w]hen the deputies ordered [Caucasian] respondents from their bed, they had no way of knowing whether the African-American suspects were elsewhere in the house.” Id. at 613. As for not allowing the new owners to dress or cover themselves, the Court quoted its statement in Michigan v. Summers that “[t]he risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.” Id. at 1993 (quoting 452 U.S. at 702–03).

193 Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93, 98–99 (2005) (also upholding questioning the handcuffed detainee about her immigration status).

194 Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79 (1987) (officers reasonably believed there was only one “third floor apartment” in city row house when in fact there were two).

195 568 U.S. ___, No. 11–770, slip op. (2013). In Bailey, the police obtained a warrant to search Bailey’s residence for firearms and drugs Id. at 2. Meanwhile, detectives staked out the residence, saw Bailey leave and drive away, and then called in a search team. Id. While the search was proceeding, the detectives tailed Bailey for about a mile before stopping and detaining him. Id. at 2–3.

196 As an alternative ground, the district court had found that stopping Bailey was lawful as an investigatory stop under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20 (1968), but the Supreme Court offered no opinion on whether, assuming the stop was valid under Terry, the resulting interaction between law enforcement and Bailey could independently have justified Bailey’s detention. Bailey, slip op. at 14.

197 Bailey, slip op. at 13–14.

198 Id. at 13.

199 Steagald v. United States, 451 U.S. 204 (1981). An arrest warrant is a necessary and sufficient authority to enter a suspect’s home to arrest him. Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980).