When it comes to cases involving allegations of computer crime or Internet crime, especially cases involving allegations involving the possession or distribution of child pornography over the internet or a peer-to-peer program, the authorities generally execute a search warrant at a residence or business in order to gather and secure evidence. Typically, these searches occur very early in the morning and are executed by a joint task force of local, state and federal agents. Although the allegation may not involve any violence or threat of violence, law enforcement does not know what they may encounter during the search warrant execution. As such, they often enter quite aggressively in order to secure the location and ensure no evidence is destroyed and everyone is safe. I have represented hundreds of clients over the years who have been subject to such a search and it is always described as a frightening experience. This blog post will address the common question: What Should you do if the Police or FBI Search your Home or Business?
A Search Alone Can Ruin a Reputation
The execution of a search warrant in a case involving an alleged computer crime often involves a large joint task force. As a result, it is not uncommon for multiple vehicles, police cruisers, evidence trucks, vans, and even mobile computer forensic units to descend upon a person’s residence during the search warrant execution. Needless to say, the presence of the many vehicles, in combination with the number of law enforcement officers, will not go unnoticed by the neighbors, and in some cases, the media.
Inevitably, the questions, rumors and suspicions swirl. The searches can often take a number of hours and can attract quite a crowd at times. Clients have contacted me during the execution of a search at their business or residence and I have often arrived on scene while the search is being conducted. Oftentimes, upon arrival, the first thing I notice is the number of law enforcement vehicles in the driveway and street. Then, the number of officers on the property and, inevitably, the neighbors peering out their window shades or “working” on something in their garage or lawn (essentially observing the scene).
Although a search warrant is executed, it does not necessarily follow that a criminal charge or indictment is going to issue. In fact, in most investigations involving computer crime or Internet crime, there are no arrests made at the time of the search. Instead, evidence is secured, interviews (interrogations) may be conducted and information is gathered. Whether a criminal charge is brought or not, the search alone will immediately draw suspicion and significantly harm the reputation and standing of a person or business.
What to Do if a Search Occurs at Your House or Business?
First, this blog post is not meant to serve as legal advice. Rather, it offers general information that can be considered. However, each and every case, or search, is different and may require a different approach. As such, if your house or business is being searched, or if law enforcement requests permission to search you, your personal property, or your house or business, the most prudent approach would be to immediately contact an attorney for guidance. Here is some basic information to consider if you ever find yourself the target of a search or investigation:
#1: Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney or Request to Contact an Attorney.Every situation is different and needs to be evaluated so an approach can be determined and tailored to the specific circumstances.
#2: Try to Remain Calm and Respectful, no matter what happens or how you are treated. As indicated, the execution of a warrant can be dangerous and law enforcement typically takes an aggressive approach to initially secure the scene. It is important to remain calm and respectful during the process. If there is unjustified treatment or a violation of your rights, that wrongdoing can be addressed at the appropriate time, not at the time of the search.
#3: Know your rights. You have a right to remain silent. You have a right to refuse to consent to a search. However, if law enforcement has a warrant, then they are allowed to conduct a search, with or without your consent. If they do not have a warrant (and no other exigent circumstances exist) you do not need to consent to the search. Please note, if law enforcement does not have a warrant and you do not consent to the search, but they decide to enter or search regardless, you should not do anything to impede them at that point, besides respectfully noting that you do not consent to the search. There are other reasons that may justify their search (exigent circumstances). Again, these are issues that can be explored and litigated in court, not at the scene.
Contacting a Lawyer During the Search Warrant Execution : (844) 766-3739
It is not uncommon for me to receive a phone call from a potential new client who indicates that the FBI or police are in their house or business conducting a search. I generally tell the caller to answer very basic questions for me and I remain cognizant that the investigators are listening to the responses from my client. As such, I usually ask basic questions that will only elicit a yes or no response from my client. Am I on speaker? Can the investigators hear you? Have they indicated you are under arrest or detained? I then advise them they have certain rights. Finally, I ask if I can talk to one of the agents or investigators. These are often fruitful discussions where I can gather information that will help me better understand and assess the situation. I respectfully inquire of the investigator to find out as much information as possible regarding their purpose and their intentions going forward. I gather their contact information for future communication and, at times, I am able to travel to the scene to confer directly with them. These steps are often vitally important, especially if the case proceeds to a criminal charge.
After the Search
During a search, law enforcement may detain a suspect or even make an arrest. Obviously, it is imperative that the person detained or arrested secure counsel as soon as possible. The detained person will have many important decisions to make, including, will the person remain silent or make a statement? Will they consent to further searches? Will they subject themselves to a polygraph examination and other important decisions. An attorney can guide the person through the process, advise, and make a determination as to the best approach.
In cases involving allegations of Internet crime or computer crime, it is quite common for law enforcement to not make any arrests during the search warrant execution. Instead, data storage devices (computers, cell phones, hard drives, anything that can store data and metadata) are searched or taken into evidence. Since forensic examinations can take many months for the government to complete, often they will simply tell the suspect or person searched that they will review the evidence, the investigation is ongoing, and they will contact them sometime in the future. This is when the person has a crucial decision to make!
Some suspects choose to do nothing at this juncture. They hope law enforcement simply never calls back or does not find any evidence of a crime. Or, they simply try to ignore the whole situation, as it is unpleasant. Perhaps they do not want to confront the situation or discuss it with their family or friends. This is almost never the right decision. There are many steps that an experienced computer crime defense attorney can take at this time in order to try to secure the best possible outcome.
Whether you or someone you know has been subject to a search, or arrest, please call The Frey Law Firm for a free initial consultation with Attorney Ron Frey. We are prepared to evaluate your specific situation and advise as to the options available going forward. We can be reached anytime, toll-free, at (844) 766-3739.