After a Search Warrant: The First Thing You Should Do
That’s obvious advice, and probably not that helpful. You know you need to hire a lawyer.
But, right now, if you’re reading this, I suspect that you’re nervous and likely a little scared. Having a team of federal agents storm your house SWAT team style and root through your belongings is traumatic. It’s terrifying. The agents come into your home - your personal space - and they control it. A search of your house can feel like a very personal violation. In the midst of that, you now have to figure out what this means for you, your future, and your family. And you’d like to find that out right away.
If you’re like most of the people I talk to after a search of their house has happened, you’re probably calling lawyers now - or trying to find lawyers to call. Getting a lawyer on the phone - especially a good lawyer - can take time. Unless you get lucky with a lawyer’s schedule, which sometimes happens, you may not want to hire the lawyer sitting in his office with nothing to do but answer the phone from potential clients. But you still want answers right now, which makes sense.
So, to let you know what’s likely to happen immediately, here is some of what I tell people who have just had a search warrant executed at their house or office. Please bear in mind, this is all very general - your specific situation will vary. And, as you already probably know, you should hire a lawyer who can give you advice about your specific situation.
Here are the primary questions people have after a search of their house. If you have a question that isn’t here, please email me - both so I can answer it and so I can add it here for other people. (if you’re like to hire my firm, please call our firm at (202) 640-2850. Helping potential new clients is a slightly different process simply because we want to respond to you very quickly and I’m often not able to respond to non-client email in as timely a manner as I’d like).
What does this mean?
The first question most people who have had a warrant executed at their house or office want to know is what it means.
At its core, what it means is that the government had enough to convince some judge that there was some reason to think that there is evidence of a crime at your house or office. So, because there was a search, you can know that there’s some investigation and that a judge signed off on letting agents do the search of your house and take things from you.
Often this means that you are the target of the investigation. If the government is trying to get information about someone else, they frequently use a subpoena instead of a warrant. Which suggests - but only suggests - that this is an investigation of you or someone at your house or office.
I've written a little more about search warrants in federal cases on this page that can give you a little background.
What happens next?
In most cases, not much. The government just collected a mass of evidence. The agents will have to sort through it. That will take time. For most federal crimes, the statute of limitations is five years. The government has time. Very often they take it.
In the meantime, you can and should use this time to hire a lawyer to start working on the case. What I do, initially, when hired by someone who has had a search warrant executed at their house is to meet with them and learn what this is likely about, start gathering evidence or information about the case, reach out to the prosecutor on the case to open a dialogue and start talking about the case, and start trying to get my client’s things returned.
You should also learn what not to do if you're under federal investigation.
Also, at this point, only talk to your lawyer - or a lawyer you're trying to hire - about your case.
I talked to the agents about the case when they were here. Is that bad?
Unfortunately, probably it is. Here’s a link where I talk about talking to law enforcement. Though, at this point, you can’t turn back time. Focus on the future and on what you can affect going forward. Though be sure to talk to whatever lawyer you hire about what you said.
I've also written a page explaining the ways your lawyer can try to keep your statement from being used against you.
Is there anything I should do before I hire a lawyer?
Yes, especially if you talked to the agents.
Right now, right down everything that happened as specifically as you can. Write, at the top of that, “Attorney Client Privileged.” The very first line of your notes should say that this is something you’re writing so you can give it to the lawyer you intend to hire. Then record every detail you can remember about what happened during the search. Write down the number of agents, what time they came, who was in your house, whether they talked to you, what everyone said, what the agent names were, and anything else you can remember.
When do I get my things back?
Especially with computers, this is a big question. Generally, the government is supposed to give you back your things as soon as they don’t need them for their case. So they’ll copy your computer hard drives and, when that’s done, give your computers or smart phones or hard drives back.
For other things, unfortunately, often that has to wait until the investigation has wrapped up or any criminal case is done.
What about my passport?
If you’re planning international travel soon, getting your passport back will be tricky. The easiest way is to hire a lawyer and have that lawyer ask for it back. Maybe the agent or prosecutor will say yes - which happens more than you probably think. Though sometimes they don’t. Then you have a strategic decision to make with your lawyer about whether to go to court to try to get it back. That gets more in the weeds than I can really go into here.
Are they tapping my phones?
They could be, but they probably aren’t. Getting a wire tap of a person’s house takes a fair bit of work on the government’s part. Much of the time they don’t go to the trouble after a search warrant. But it’s possible.
More likely they will be recording what you say if there is someone cooperating against you and they are wearing a wire or recording your phone calls. This is another reason to only talk to your lawyer about your case.
And, if it’s a national security matter and the NSA is involved all bets are off.