Search Warrants in White-Collar Cases

How do search warrants from federal law enforcement work in a white-collar investigation?

Federal law enforcement is using search warrants more and more frequently. Aside from being arrested, there is little more shocking than showing up at work and having a swarm of federal agents searching your office, or having federal officers knock on your door in the morning then storm in to search your home.

So, what are the rules for search warrants?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution lays out criteria that a warrant has to meet for it to be valid – specifically that “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.”

This means a few things. First, the warrant has to be supported by probable cause – which means that in order to get a warrant in a federal case, a law enforcement officer has to swear out an affidavit to a federal judge – normally a magistrate judge – that sets out enough facts to show that there’s probable cause to think that if the feds execute a warrant they’re likely to find evidence of a crime.

Second, it means that the warrant has to describe what the agents are authorized to search and what they’re authorized to take. The agents are only supposed to take things that they’re authorized to take, and they’re only supposed to search the places they’re told they can search.

What does it mean if the federal government gets a search warrant for your office?

It means that a there’s an investigation and that the feds think there’s evidence of a crime in your office, and that a judge agreed with them.

So, if the federal government executes a search warrant at your office, start to think about what they might be investigating. If it involves you, now would be a good time to hire a lawyer.

Often the agents will interview the people who work at the office about what they’re investigating. The FBI thinks that a person is more likely to make a statement that they can use against her later if they find her in a state of surprise – like while her office is being raided.

Being interviewed as a part of a raid can be horrible – people who are interviewed while that’s happening often make very damaging statements. But one bright side is that you do get to hear what the agents are asking, so it gives you a sense of what the government is investigating.

The government routinely takes hard drives, computers, and cell phones, when they execute a search warrant. They do this so that they can search for evidence – like email – that may be incriminating.

The feds will very often agree to mirror your hard drives and return your devices to you so that you can have access to your computers again and do work again. It will also let you and your lawyer get a look at what documents they took from your office. Though to do that, the feds will need to send them to a law enforcement computer lab, and that will take significantly more time than you think it should.