The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement. It was designed to safeguard personal privacy interests by restricting how and when the police can search or seize an individual’s home, papers, effects, or physical being.
It is worth noting that the Fourth Amendment only protects against unreasonable searches. This means that reasonable searches may bypass an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. If no reasonable expectation of privacy exists, the Fourth Amendment cannot shield a person from a search.
When determining whether an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy, courts typically consider two questions:
- Did the person have an actual expectation of privacy?
- Is society willing to recognize that person’s expectation of privacy?
If both questions are answered affirmatively, then the Fourth Amendment would most likely protect that person’s privacy. In general, the police must have probable cause and a search warrant before invading a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy. However, certain situations may allow the police to conduct a warrantless search if probable cause is present.
What Is a Search Warrant? What Is Probable Cause?
A search warrant is a court order signed by a judge that allows law enforcement to search a specific place for specific objects or materials for a criminal investigation, such as a person’s home or office. Police must prove to a judge that they have probable cause to infringe on a citizen’s right to privacy to obtain a search warrant.
Probable cause refers to the basis of belief that there is evidence in connection with a crime on that person’s property.It occurs when the facts and circumstances of a situation are combined with a police officer’s knowledge and experience, leading them to believe that criminal activity is happening. This term is not defined by the Fourth Amendment but rather developed by judges and attorneys to determine the reasonableness of a search.
Probable cause can be established in several ways, including the officer’s own observations, such as sights, sounds, and smells, circumstantial evidence, and information from informants, witnesses, and victims, especially statements regarding a suspect’s activity.
When Can Police Conduct a Search Without a Warrant?
There are a number of exceptions to the rule that states police officers must obtain a warrant by proving probable cause in order to conduct a search. Some common examples include:
A police officer may frisk a person’s outer clothing for weapons if they have reasonable suspicion to stop the person.
An example would be if a police officer observes someone acting suspiciously, such as walking with a limp or frequently looking over their shoulder. The officer may approach the person and ask to speak with them.
If the person appears to be evasive or the officer observes something that leads them to believe that the person may be carrying a weapon, the officer may frisk the person’s outer clothing for weapons.
If, during the frisk, the officer feels something that could be a weapon, they may seize it. However, the officer may not continue to search further if the item does not feel like a weapon.
A person may consent to a search by law enforcement, but they must do so freely and voluntarily.
Plain View Doctrine
If the police are lawfully in an area, they do not need a search warrant to seize any evidence that may be in plain view.
Search Incident to Arrest
Officers do not need a search warrant once a person has been arrested. They are allowed to search the person and their surroundings.
An example of this exception is if a police officer pulls over a driver for a traffic violation and finds out that the driver has an outstanding arrest warrant. The officer can legally arrest the driver and search for the driver’s person and immediate surroundings incident to the arrest without a warrant.
This may include searching the driver’s pockets, bags, or any items within the driver’s reach, such as the car’s glove compartment or center console. The officer may seize any evidence found during the search related to the crime for which the driver was arrested.
Search of a Motor Vehicle Incident to Arrest
Officers do not need a warrant to search the glove compartment of a vehicle if the person they arrested was a recent occupant of the vehicle.
Suppose that a police officer pulls over a car for a traffic violation, and during the stop, the officer smells marijuana. The officer then arrests the driver for drug possession.
Because the driver was a recent occupant of the car, the officer was permitted to search the vehicle’s glove compartment without a warrant. In the glove compartment, the officer finds additional drugs, drug paraphernalia, and evidence of drug sales. The officer can use this evidence in a court of law, as it was obtained through a lawful search incident to arrest.
Protective Sweep Following an Arrest
Officers may search for hidden accomplices by walking through a house for a brief visual inspection, but they must justify this search with a reasonable belief that a dangerous accomplice is hiding on the premises.
An example of when officers may conduct a protective sweep following an arrest is when they have reason to believe that a dangerous accomplice may be hiding in a house where a suspect was arrested.
For instance, if the police arrest a suspect in connection with a robbery and they have reason to believe that the suspect’s partner in crime may be hiding in the house, they may conduct a brief visual inspection of the house to ensure there are no other persons present who may pose a threat to their safety. This is because there is a reasonable belief that a dangerous accomplice may be hiding in the house, and the officers’ safety must check for their presence.
Police do not need a warrant to conduct a search when time restraints make it impractical.
An example of a situation where police may conduct a warrantless search due to time restraints is if they receive a report of a person who is believed to be in immediate danger or is in the process of committing a violent crime. In such a case, the police may need to act quickly to prevent harm to the person in danger or to apprehend the suspect before they escape or cause further harm.
In such situations, the police may enter a residence or property without a warrant to search for and apprehend the suspect or to ensure the safety of the person in danger.
Do I Need an Attorney for Searches Made without a Warrant?
Although there are some circumstances in which a search warrant is not required for a legal search and seizure, it is crucial that your rights are protected and all searching parties are held accountable. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help you understand your rights and legal options and represent you in court as needed.