Search Warrant Basics

William Shepherd


March 1, 2012

When armed government agents enter your office, seize your computers and talk to your employees, the business day has gotten off to a rough start. It only gets worse when the news shows video of agents in raid jackets carrying your eye-catching, focus group-tested logo. As the days go on, you are busy reassuring customers, vendors and employees that despite early reports and comments made by the government and your competitors, it is all going to be fine and you are going to get back to business as usual.

Presented with this hypothetical situation, many adopt a similar response: it won't happen to me. But any business that operates in a heavily regulated area or partners with any federal agency needs to appreciate that government inquiries are simply part of operating in that space. The FBI is not the only investigative agency; it is just as likely that the Environmental Protection Agency or the Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General will be at the front desk with a warrant in hand and a team ready to cart away the infrastructure and knowledge of your business. Will you be ready?

Good planning as part of a regular annual review can help settle nerves, avoid costly mistakes, and put you in the best defensive position should that fateful day come when the feds show up at your door. Follow this five-part plan and you will be much better off.

Summon the Team
Just as the agents did the morning before the search, you need to assemble your response team. The government has specialized people with individual roles and you need to have the same type of team. Some people on your team are there because you want them there. Others make the team because they sit at the reception desk or close to the front door. Either way, they are now on the same team.

The point person on the team has to be the in-house counsel. The agent may not let the receptionist place a series of calls, but the receptionist should be permitted to call the in-house counsel to notify her of the situation. From that point on, the command center shifts from the front desk to counsel's desk.

The next call should be made from the company's general counsel to outside criminal counsel. A general litigation or M&A background may be well suited for the company's general needs, but on this day, the needs are quite different. Outside criminal counsel needs to begin the dialogue with the agent and the prosecutor, and should send someone to the scene if possible.

The response team should also include the heads of IT, security and communications. The IT officer must make sure that, as the search is conducted, intrusion into the system can be minimized so that the business may continue operation. If the IT officer is not permitted to assist with the search, it is critical that he observes all actions taken by the government related to any IT matters. This observation may be valuable at some point in the future if computer records are compromised or lost. This is just as important for information that may tend to show some violation of the law as it is for information that may support defense or a claim of actual innocence. The Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section of the Criminal Division has produced a manual for the search and seizure of computer records and an expert can help evaluate law enforcement's compliance with its own approved procedures.

If your company is a manufacturer or scientific production company where the question at issue may be the quality, characteristics or integrity of a product, it is important that you demand an equal sample from the same source and under the same conditions as those taken by the seizing agents. This is important so that your own experts can review a similar sample for your own testing in defense. If this is not possible given the type of product seized, your outside counsel will work with prosecutors and agents to assert your rights to preserve evidence for future testing. Just as the IT expert can be a helpful observer, a technical expert who observes the government sampling can also provide valuable insight into issues related to the sampling that may make a world of difference at some time in the future.

The communications expert is the final member of the team, but no less significant. She can be an important point of contact for media inquiries that will inevitably follow. It is vital to be able to communicate to your customers that you are still performing your daily support and that, as you address this matter, you will never take your eye off the customer's needs and deadlines. With a disciplined response, many companies will survive a search warrant and government investigation. This process will help ensure that your customers are there for you when you get through this difficult time.

Depending on the size of your company, all of the response team roles may be performed by one or two people. Think of the function of the tasks that need to be accomplished instead of job titles alone. The other factor that you must consider at the outset is what role will these people have in the case going forward. Try and identify people who can perform these tasks but will be outside the case itself. If you know that the company lab has been under investigation, the lab director may be a target of the investigation. If that is the case, you do not want to have that employee serving as your only witness observing the search. Instead, an ideal observer might be the outside counsel's investigator.

Execute a Pre-Established Plan
An important part of this response is that you have a pre-established plan that can be taught and disseminated instantaneously. The first rule of any plan is to not make matters worse. In this case that means, "Let's not have anyone arrested for obstruction." If the search team has a signed search warrant for your address, they have a lawful right to make entry.

Challenging the search warrant is for another day and both state and federal laws prohibit interfering with the execution of a search warrant. This is the time to politely object to the search and document what is happening. With a copy of the search warrant in hand, outside legal counsel may be able to challenge the scope of the search, but that is not an area where the novice should dabble.

While your specialized team members perform their tasks, the company is generally at a standstill while the search continues. Let your team members work and have the rest of your employees go home. You are shut down for the time being just as you would be any other time your business is closed. You do not want to allow employees to wander the halls and interact with agents. Off-hand comments that make it into a law enforcement report may distort the facts and be difficult to explain later.

Make sure that company employees understand what is happening and what their rights are in this situation. It is important to avoid interfering with the actual lawful execution of a search warrant; it is also unlawful to tell your employees to not speak to the agents. If they know they have a right to meet with a company-retained counsel of their own and have a right to remain silent at this point, it may go a long way in calming nerves.

Assert Privilege
This is not a difficult matter to explain, but it is critical: if there are documents that are covered by the attorney/client privilege or any other similar privilege, it is critical that you assert that privilege. One reason for the receptionist to be allowed to call company counsel is that there are materials that are covered by the privilege.

It is critical to make privilege claims at this juncture so that the agents are aware of the assertion and that they formally recognize it. This may simply mean that they put those documents in a different box for review by a team subject to judicial review at a time in the near future or it may mean that the team will review the materials for immediate decisions to be made on scene. Whatever procedure the agents have established can be reviewed later, but if you do not assert privilege now, it changes the options available to you as the proceedings go forward.

Record the Search
Given the concerns of civil liability, it is not uncommon for agents to make a video recording of their entry and departure from the scene. Their goal is to document any damage that may have been caused by the lawful execution of the warrant. The agents also want to be able to document their professional execution of the warrant in the event that claims are raised at a later point. But that tape is going to stay in their custody and not be available for your team to review as you prepare the defense.

A video record of the search may provide a key piece of support to the defense that could not possibly be understood on the day of the search. However, this process must be handled in a very unassuming manner and with a clear understanding by the agents that you are doing it, and that, in the event there are undercover officers who are masked, that you will make no effort to record them. In some states, recording voice without consent of all parties is a felony, so this is a matter that you must review with outside counsel when you are developing your procedures for search warrant response. Again, you do not want to do anything to make your situation worse.

Collect Your Own Intelligence
Just as the agents are trying to learn about your operations, they will be giving you valuable information about their own operations and the focus of their investigation. Your first tasks are to determine who is in charge, document the names of the agents in attendance and note all the agencies involved in the search. This is information that you can gather directly by politely asking for the names of the agents and observing the insignia of the agents' uniforms or badges around their necks.

The other opportunity available to you in this unique situation is the opportunity to listen to the language the agents use, the apparent hierarchy of the agents, and the small bits of casual conversation that may give you valuable insight into the goals of the search. As the day wears on, the agents will feel more comfortable around your response team and they will talk more freely. This is not to suggest that your team should attempt to interrogate the agents, however, because that will open a two-way dialogue that may lead to statements that are difficult to explain or put in context. The suggestion is simply that you serve as an active listener.

Help Establish Rapport
Throughout the day, the agents are going to be forming opinions about your company and your employees. Use this time to make a good impression about your company. A professional, disciplined response in a time of crisis sends a very different message than the one sent by yelling obstructionists. Even though the agents have quite a bit of information about you as their target, it may have all been gathered from third parties. This may be your opportunity to impress them and to help them question the veracity of your accusers. Remember that there will be meetings about your company, your executives and their futures, and the only people in those meetings will be the agents and the prosecutors. You want their memories of this day to weigh in your favor.
William Shepherd is a partner at Holland & Knight, and was recently named chair-elect of the American Bar Association's "criminal justice section" and co-division director of its white collar crime division.