The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. However, this protection is only against unreasonable searches and seizures that are conducted by government officials, including the police. It is important to note that seizure refers to the arrest or detention of a person by the government or police; courts will frequently group unreasonable search and seizures as one, but an unreasonable search can occur without anyone being detained.

A search is an inspection or physical invasion of a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. While the term “search” brings to mind looking through a person’s property, such as their house or vehicle, in order to find evidence.

However, it is important to note that the term “search” is broad, and can refer to:

  • A phone tap;
  • Access to computers; and
  • Observation of a home or GPS locator.

Additionally, what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy is largely subjective. Meaning, what an individual expects to be private must generally be supported by what the public also considers private.

An example of this would be how when a person is in a busy restaurant and steps into a private room to make a phone call – there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, if they take the call at the table and talk loud enough for people around to hear, there is no privacy expectation. Additionally, if they are in a private room but still speaking loud enough for others to hear, their expectation of privacy is unreasonable outside of the room.

To summarize, a person’s privacy depends on two factors: the behavior of the person, such as speaking loudly on the phone. The second factor would be the social point of view, or stepping away from others in order to make a phone call.

When Can Police Search Your Home? When Can Police Search Your Home Without A Warrant?

To reiterate, under the 4th Amendment, every citizen has a right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police in areas where one has a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” This includes searches of a person’s body, belongings, and their home. However, police can generally search a person’s home if they have first secured a valid search warrant to do so. A search warrant is a court document allowing police to conduct a search.

In order to obtain a search warrant, they must prove probable cause that there is criminal activity occurring in the home. Probable cause refers to a higher level of suspicion than reasonable suspicion, and is the same level of suspicion needed for an arrest. Probable cause is further discussed below. Additionally, the search warrant should clearly state the address of the residence to be searched, as well as the items that the police are looking for.

There are some instances in which the police may not need a warrant in order to legally search your home. Examples include:

  • The search is associated with a lawful arrest;
  • The homeowner has consented to the search;
  • The items are in plain view, such as on the front lawn or visible from the curb;
  • There is a risk that the evidence will be destroyed in the amount of time it would take to obtain a search warrant; and
  • The police are currently “in hot pursuit” of a suspect.

While the terms “probable cause” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” are associated with each other, they are not the same. Police need probable cause in order to conduct a search. However, once a case goes to trial, the defendant must be proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which is the level of proof required to show that the defendant is guilty.

To simplify: “probable cause” is the level of suspicion needed before police can conduct a search or investigation, while “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the level of proof needed in criminal trials to find a defendant guilty.

What Should I Do If The Police Illegally Searched My Home?

An unreasonable search is what occurs when law enforcement searches with no warrant and no probable cause. To reiterate, probable cause exists when it is more likely than not that evidence of a crime can be found in the area that is being searched.

Searches without an issued warrant are considered to be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and as such any evidence that is found during these searches will not likely be used against a defendant in court. This excludes the aforementioned exceptions which allow officers to search without a warrant.

An example of this would be if the police believe that a specific person is selling drugs. Without a warrant, the officer enters their house when they are not home and searches for the drugs. This would be an unreasonable search, and as such any evidence that was found during will most likely be excluded in court.

Even if the suspect were home, it would still be unreasonable without a warrant unless they invited the officer inside; or, if the officer approached the house, knocked, and noise from inside the house indicated illicit activity.

What Else Should I Know About Searches Without A Warrant?

It is not necessary to announce a search when the police have a valid search warrant, as they are allowed to enter and search the premises without knocking, ringing the doorbell, or announcing their presence. However, this rule only applies to federal searches that are strictly governed by federal laws. It is important to note that each state may have its own statutes that differ from the federal rule, but are still based on its original premise. Generally speaking, the state equivalent of this standard is commonly referred to as the “knock and announce” rule.

When law enforcement did not get a search warrant before performing a search of a person or their property, any evidence seized during the warrantless search may be barred from being used as evidence against a person in court. To reiterate, there are some exceptions.

An example of this would be if someone gets pulled over by the police while driving, and there is a bag of drugs sitting on the passenger seat in plain view for anyone to see. The responding officer will most likely have probable cause to believe that the person has committed a crime.

A search warrant must be filed in good faith by the officer who is submitting it; meaning, a search warrant should not provide law enforcement with free reign to conduct a search wherever they want.

When a search warrant:

  • Was not issued by a neutral and detached magistrate;
  • Was not filed in good faith; or
  • Does not specifically state and identify where to search, or the items that can be seized, then the warrant may be invalid.

The same exclusion precedent holds true for any evidence or information that was obtained from a search and seizure conducted without a warrant, and which also does not meet any of the warrantless exceptions. The legal phrase for this evidence acquired during an illegal search is referred to as “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With A Police Search?

You should hire a criminal defense lawyer if you need help with a police search, as they can review the facts of the case to determine which evidence is admissible, and which evidence may be excluded from trial. Additionally, your criminal defense attorney will also be able to represent you in court.