The term search warrant refers to an order signed by a judge that allows police officers to search a specific place for specific objects or material. The purpose of such a search would be to conduct a criminal investigation, and often include areas such as a person’s home or office.

U.S. citizens have various rights to privacy which includes the right to not have their homes or belongings searched by law enforcement, unless proper procedures are followed. One of these procedures is obtaining a search warrant before they may enter into the person’s home for the purpose of searching it in connection with a criminal investigation.

What is Probable Cause?

But to have a search warrant issued, the police officer must prove to a judge that there is probable cause. There must be some basis of belief that there is evidence on the property or premises that connects with a crime.

Probable cause is the legal standard used in criminal investigations. An example of probable cause would be if the police receive a tip from several people that illegal drugs are being stored in a specific house. It may be considered probable cause to believe that drug trafficking is occurring at that place.

In short, in order to gather evidence of a crime from a person’s home or other generally private area, police must usually obtain a search warrant once they have proved they have probable cause to do so. Additionally, the search warrant must be well defined in terms of the property to be searched, and authorized by a neutral and detached judge.

What Type of Search May Be Conducted Without a Search Warrant?

Once the police have secured a legal search warrant, they may proceed to search the specified premises for the specific evidence they are looking for. However, there are some very specific circumstances in which the police may search for evidence without first obtaining a search warrant. These circumstances generally include:

  • Searches made at the time of a lawful arrest, although the police will still need probable cause to make the initial arrest;
  • Searches of an automobile, as probable cause is still required, such as a valid traffic stop;
  • The individual to be searched provides their consent without first being presented with a search warrant;
  • “Stop and frisk” search, in which the police shortly detain a person to question them about a crime (probable cause is still required for investigatory detainment, and police are limited to a pat down search of clothing);
  • Plain view, as in police may always search areas that are in plain view, or out in the open, granted that they are legally on the premises to begin with;
  • Police may perform a quick search of an area if they are in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing suspect; and
  • Evanescent Evidence, in which police may perform a search without a warrant if they have reason to believe that crucial evidence is about to be destroyed, such as drugs being flushed down a toilet.

Each of these aforementioned situations involve very specific details regarding the limits of the search that is allowed. Some examples of this could include whether containers may be opened, how far past the premises the police are allowed to search, whether the police must obtain permission to open doors, and the like. Such details can become quite complex, and typically require an attorney to interpret them.

What Happens If a Search Without a Warrant Was Illegal?

Criminal procedure rules dictate that any evidence that is seized as a result of an illegal search without a warrant must be excluded from any trial or legal proceeding. This is because such evidence is considered to be tainted by the illegal search, and may not be entered into the records as evidence.

If a search was conducted without probable cause, or inconsistently with a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy, then the search may be ruled illegal. However, exclusion of evidence may be subject to exceptions or limitations based on jurisdiction. Generally, evidence obtained through illegal searches must be excluded.

This can often include any conclusions that the police were able to from the illegally obtained evidence. As well as any evidence that they were able to get from the illegally seized evidence, even if the following evidence was collected in a legal way.

What If I Believe My Rights Were Violated in Connection With a Police Search?

If you believe that your rights were violated in connection with a police search, then you should retain an attorney before proceeding. It may be possible to sue the police for the violation if you suffered losses or harm as a result of the police violation.

Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance With Searches Conducted Without a Warrant?

If you believe your rights were violated in connection with a police search, you should immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney. Navigating the rules of criminal procedure is a complex legal process and important in protecting your legal rights.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand and protect those rights, as well as ensure you receive justice if those rights were indeed violated. Additionally, an attorney will represent you in court as needed.