For the purposes of criminal investigations, searches and seizures are primarily governed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment basically guarantees that all U.S. citizens have the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and/or seizures — when conducted by law enforcement — of their property, personal belongings, body, or other areas in which they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

This generally includes places, such as a person’s residence, other property that they own or live at, or locations where they have permission to stay as an overnight guest (e.g., a hotel or a friend’s house). The law may also cover specific kinds of property or personal belongings that one is solely in possession of, but does not own.

In addition to the Fourth Amendment, every state has its own separate constitution. They also have various state statutes and local regulations that determine how searches, seizures, and their procedures are handled within the respective state.

What is a Warrantless Search?

A warrantless search is a type of search that is conducted by law enforcement before they have obtained a search warrant from a judge. In most cases, warrantless searches are considered to be illegal. However, there are certain circumstances in which performing a search without a warrant may be justified.

The following are some examples of situations where the police may conduct a warrantless search:

  • When a suspect is fleeing the police (i.e., is in “hot pursuit”);
  • If there is a danger that incriminating evidence may be lost or destroyed;
  • When the evidence is in plain view;
  • If law enforcement received consent from either the person being searched, or the owner of the property being searched; or
  • When the search is done in connection with a valid arrest, Terry stop, or automobile search.

What is an Illegal Search?

An illegal search is a search that is conducted either:

  • Without having a search warrant (if a search warrant is required);
  • When it does not fall under one of the warrant exceptions; or
  • If it is done in a manner that violates an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

Evidence that is obtained as a result of an illegal search generally cannot be used as evidence in a court of law. This is known as the “exclusionary rule”, which essentially serves to protect citizens from having illegally obtained evidence used against them in a criminal trial.

Can the Police Search My Car?

Law enforcement is normally permitted to search a person’s vehicle if they have obtained a valid search warrant. In order to obtain the search warrant, the police must have reasonable suspicion that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime.

However, there are certain situations where the police will be able to search a car without obtaining a search warrant. In such a case, they must first have “probable cause” to stop and search the person’s vehicle. If probable cause exists, then they may pull the car over and search for items that can be used as evidence.

Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that if the police do not have a search warrant, then the warrantless search will only extend to the interior of the vehicle and items that are in plain view. Law enforcement is not permitted to search closed personal belongings, such as locked containers that obviously do not hold the type of evidence that they are seeking.

For example, if the police are looking for a set of stolen golf clubs, then they cannot search a person’s bag or purse found in the car that is too small to hold a set or single golf club.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Search and Seizure Issues?

In addition to the general principles discussed above, there are many different types of exceptions or variations to each of the rules concerning constitutional searches and seizures. These laws can also change, depending on the statutes of a state in which the crime is being investigated, as well as the individual circumstances surrounding each search or seizure incident.

Thus, if you have any questions or issues concerning a search or seizure, then you may want to consider contacting a local criminal defense attorney for further legal advice.

An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to determine whether the police complied with the appropriate legal procedures during the search or seizure in question. If the police did not follow proper protocols, then an attorney can assist you with getting any illegally obtained evidence suppressed.

In addition, an attorney can explain the relevant laws in your area, discuss the potential outcome of your case, and can figure out whether there are any defenses available that you might be able to raise. They also can help you prepare legal documents for your case and provide representation on your behalf in court.