The Fourth Amendment to the constitution states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
This basically means that police need to obtain a warrant before they can legally search your body, home or personal effects. Despite this, the Supreme Court has carved out several exceptions that allow officers (in certain situations) to conduct a search of a person’s place or items without first acquiring a warrant.
The main premise behind allowing warrantless searches is that there may be an emergency or potentially emergency that does not offer an officer time to wait for a warrant. Instances such as these, where the police can conduct a search of your person, place and personal effects without first obtaining a warrant are as follows:
A Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest
A search incident to a lawful arrest does not require the issuance of a warrant.
The purpose of allowing this type of search is to ensure the safety of the officer in case the person being arrested has access to a weapon, as well as, to allow the officer to locate any evidence which may be lost or destroyed.
The Plain View Exception
No warrant is required to seize evidence that is in plain view if the officer is legitimately in a location from which the evidence can be seen. The officer may then use probable cause to search for more illegal items and investigate other crimes further, as long as the officer is observing from a legally obtain vantage point.
Stop and Frisk (Terry Stops)
Police may stop a suspect so long as there is reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in a criminal act, or that the person is armed or carrying illegal items such as drugs. The police may then frisk the person. If anything feels like a weapon or contraband during the frisk, it may be seized and use as evidence.
The Automobile Exception
The courts have allowed extended use of warrantless searches for automobiles and as such, the search of automobiles provide the biggest exception to your Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. In a search incident to arrest, the police may search the car’s entire glove compartment for evidence or weapons, even if it is not within the suspect’s reach or grasp.
Moreover, if police have probable cause to believe that the car was involved in a crime, they can execute a warrantless search of the entire car, opening any package or container in the automobiles that the officer reasonably believes to contain evidence. Furthermore, the police may even search the vehicle without a warrant after it has been impounded.
The police are authorized to make a warrantless search if the time it would take to get a warrant would jeopardize public safety or lead to the loss of important evidence. In this case, evidence that can be easily moved, destroyed or otherwise made to disappear may be seized without a warrant.
If an individual is not in custody, they do not need to be informed of their rights, and in most cases, they won’t be. Nevertheless, an officer may conduct a search if the individual knowingly and voluntarily consents to the search. A law enforcement officer can merely ask if the police can search and if the individual said yes, the search instantly becomes legal. Additionally, officers enjoy implied consent to conduct warrantless searches in some situations such as the search of your luggage at an airport or other major security checkpoints.
Know Your Rights
Individuals are often confused as to their civil rights and don’t know whether they can refuse an officer’s request to search their person or automobile. But, a person has the right to refuse to give consent, or when giving consent to limit the scope of the search. An experienced criminal defense attorney should be called at the first opportunity.
Furthermore, the US Supreme Court has developed the Exclusionary Rule the to deter the police from violating your Fourth Amendment right. Under this rule of evidence, any evidence obtained from someone in an unconstitutional search and seizure will not be used against him in a criminal trial.
The rules governing warrantless searches are extremely complex and each incident comes with its own set of facts and circumstance. So, while the courts have carved out various exceptions to your right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, many searches, conducted with or without warrants, have their legality successfully challenged in court.