Public Safety

Court approves pilot program to test electronic search warrants

Fourth Judicial District in western Iowa trying out new technology first

The Iowa Supreme Court approved a pilot program in the 4th Judicial District — Audubon, Cass, Fremont, Harrison, Mills, Montgomery, Pottawattamie, Page and Shelby counties — to develop procedures for the use of electronic search warrants.

Electronic search warrants will reduce the time required to obtain warrants, reduce travel time by law enforcement and make more effective use of judges’ time, according to the order. Paper warrants require law enforcement to fill out application forms and then leave the scene of the potential search and drive to find a judge, either at a courthouse during business hours or their home after hours. If the judge grants the warrant, then the officer has to drive back to the scene to execute it.

The electronic warrants can be submitted to a judge from a squad car computer, which is more efficient for law enforcement and the judges.

The pilot program will be evaluated by the court annually and will continue until further notice.

Fourth Judicial District Chief Judge Jeff Larson, who was on the advisory committee to develop recommendations for the new process, talked about the project, which will start in the next few weeks.

Page County Chief Deputy Charles McCalla, 6th Judicial Associate District Judge Nicholas Scott, Linn County Sheriff Capt. Greg McGivern and Marion police Lt. Scott Elam also provided their thoughts about electronic search warrants.

Q: Iowa courts started going paperless in 2010, so why did it take so long to get a pilot program for electronic search warrants?

A: Larson: It had been discussed at various levels since (the electronic document management system) started. We should take advantage of the electronic process because it will save us money. Most law enforcement agencies are now used to filing electronic citations from their patrol cars and offices. There may have been some pushback a few years ago because some counties or offices didn’t have computer scanners and needed technology. Now, the rural offices have that technology.

Q: As a task force member working on this program, what were the hurdles?

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A: Larson: It was just working through the procedural issues to make sure there would be a safeguard throughout the process. When a search warrant is needed, law enforcement has to fill out the search warrant package, including the application with all the pertinent information, and submit it to a magistrate judge, associate or district judge in their judicial district. Then the officer or deputy can just call the judge to alert him/her to the warrant and the judge can ask for any additional information needed. The judge then administers the oath of office over the phone and signs off or denies the warrant. Law enforcement doesn’t have to leave the crime scene and can print off the warrant from their squad car computer.

The process of going to electronic warrants started in 2017, when the lawmakers amended the law to allow those to be submitted electronically, and then in 2018, the state court administrator’s office set up an advisory committee to develop recommendations.

Q: What has been the process to get a search warrant?

A: Larson: Law enforcement would have to leave the scene, fill out paperwork and then, many times, travel miles to go to the courthouse to have the judge sign it or if it’s after hours, go to a judge’s home. The officer may not be in the same county as the courthouse where the judge works or where the judge lives. (It) can take a lot of time. The process is way overdue.

Q: Page County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Charles McCalla, what do you see as the biggest advantage for filing them electronically?

A: McCalla: The smaller counties have limited manpower, and some of the judges, like in Mills County, may be 60 to 70 miles away if a search warrant is needed after hours. Just traveling across the county can take time, depending where you are. At a minimum, we probably have to drive 30 minutes and up to an hour to get to a judge. This will save us time, money for travel and provide safety because we can stay at the scene to ensure the evidence hasn’t been tampered with.

Q: Is there a recent incident where an electronic search warrant may have helped?

A: McCalla: A few weeks ago, there was a theft report for a stolen chain saw and deputies went to the home and saw guns all over the house and they knew the guy who lived there had been convicted. They didn’t want to tip him off, so they just left the scene and went to get a search warrant. Luckily, the evidence was still there when they came back. They found about 90 guns.

Q: How do you feel about being the “guinea pigs” for the process?

A: McCalla: Happy to be. As law enforcement, we’re natural fixers. We find solutions. And this is an idea time to use the process during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep everyone safe. We won’t have to have any face-to-face contact with the judges.

Q: Is Linn County excited about the program, once it’s tested and used across the state?

A: Scott: I think many of us in the criminal justice system are eagerly awaiting the results of the pilot. They have the potential to make the system more efficient. It is in the interest of the police and the suspect, who is often detained pending a warrant, to get the search warrant application reviewed by a judge as soon as possible. A potential benefit is that officers could also use those more often, which protects citizens from unlawful search and seizures if a judge first reviews the evidence.

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A: McGivern: I believe the implementation will be a much faster and efficient process for deputies. Like any new process, there may need to be some revisions that will have to be worked out, but I look forward to it.

A: Elam: We’ve done it this way for a long time, and it can be a bit of a haul for us, depending who’s on call (among the judges) — after hours. It’s nice to see there’s a pilot. The concern would be if something goes wrong in the process. If the internet is down or something else. Now, we have to go from Marion to the Linn County Courthouse. Then we go to the county attorney’s office to get a prosecutor to review the warrant and then find a judge (in courthouse during business hours). That takes some time. If you can type out the application from your car right at the scene, it would help with details on the warrant — describing the structure or property needing be searched. I just hope they work out all the bugs first.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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