What I Learned from Reviewing 279 Search Warrants

Over the past several months, I’ve been dropping by clerks’ offices to look at search warrants. I’ve made it to six offices, including offices in eastern, central, and western North Carolina, and in urban and rural areas. I’ve reviewed and made notes on 279 warrants and have at least skimmed hundreds more. The warrants I’ve reviewed were sought by 38 different agencies for a range of offenses. What follows are a few observations based on what I saw.

The clerks’ offices were welcoming and helpful. Returned search warrants are public records, but I got the sense that it was a little unusual for someone to show up wanting to wade through dozens of search warrants. Nonetheless, every office that I went to welcomed me and made the warrants available. They all had them filed neatly and in a logical order. In some instances I had ready access to a few years’ worth of warrants while others had warrants going much farther back. The experience overall was very positive and I am grateful for the hospitality I received.

No-knock warrants seem to be very rare. The original impetus for my research was to get a sense of how often no-knock warrants are issued, and how no-knock authorization is documented. Unfortunately for my research, I didn’t encounter a single no-knock warrant in my visits to clerks’ offices. I located some by searching appellate records and by reaching out to contacts across the state, so I know that at least some judicial officials occasionally issue such warrants. But they appear to be very uncommon. I plan to write something separately, and in more detail, about no-knock warrants and no-knock entries. If you have a case involving such a warrant, I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss it with you.

A large proportion of warrants involve electronic devices or online accounts. Because my original focus was on no-knock warrants, I looked most closely at residential search warrants. But it was impossible to miss the fact that a huge proportion of search warrants concerned cell phones and other digital devices or online accounts. I saw warrants for Snap, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, PayPal, Zelle, CashApp, Facebook, Google, Craigslist, Spectrum, and many more service providers. My research wasn’t intended to be statistically valid but I would say that about half the warrants I saw were related to digital evidence.

Magistrates and superior court judges issue most search warrants. A slight majority of the search warrants I saw were issued by magistrates. Superior court judges were surprisingly close behind, especially given that there are about a fifth as many superior court judges as there are magistrates. The number of warrants issued by superior court judges made me wonder whether warrant review is a substantial part of some judges’ workload, particularly because some warrant applications – including those for digital evidence – are long and complex. I saw a few warrants issued by district court judges, one issued by a clerk of court, and none issued by members of the appellate bench.

Search warrants in likely suicides or overdose deaths. I saw quite a few warrants that were issued for the search of a residence where someone died in an apparent suicide or drug overdose. My impression from reviewing the warrants and talking to folks in law enforcement is that different agencies approach these types of tragic events quite differently. Some rarely use search warrants, since officers are often already present in the home as part of an emergency medical response and the likelihood of a criminal charge may be low. Others carefully obtain warrants based on detailed statements of probable cause. (In apparent overdose cases, the probable cause may relate to evidence of a potential death by distribution charge.) And some fall somewhere in between, obtaining warrants but based on rather perfunctory showings that might not stand up in the unlikely event of a legal challenge. I previously wrote about search warrants in apparent suicides here.

Conclusion. I found looking at so many search warrants to be surprisingly interesting and helpful. I’d like to do a deeper dive into some of the warrants for digital evidence, which looked to be packed with interesting legal questions. But first I need to finish writing about no-knock warrants and entries. Stay tuned for that, and if you have comments or questions on anything in this post in the meantime, please let me know.