The recent search warrant executed at Paul Manafort’s residence has generated a lot of speculation about how much evidence of criminal wrongdoing there must have been behind the search warrant affidavit justifying the search. But as the Washington Post points out, what few systematic studies of the search warrant process there are suggest what most police officers, defense attorneys and prosecutors will say: in most jurisdictions, it’s incredibly easy to get a warrant. Most judges exercise little to no scrutiny at all, and the few who do can be circumvented. You just take your affidavit to another judge. The federal process is described by former prosecutor Ken White:
“In the federal system, federal agents present search warrant applications to United States Magistrate Judges for review. Magistrate Judges aren’t nominated by the President and confirmed by Congress like United States District Court judges — they are appointed by other federal judges for set terms, and have a reduced level of authority and responsibility. They do a lot of the unglamorous day-to-day work of the federal judiciary.
The magistrate judge reviews the search warrant application and, almost always, signs the warrant approving it . . . I think that magistrates can be a little rubber-stampy at times. But probable cause is a pretty low bar.”
As the article’s author points out, the impression that warrants for no-knock raids are carefully scrutinized and waged against only people for whom there is a significant amount of incriminating evidence just isn’t true.