The Fourth Amendment in our constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police. That is why police officers need a good reason and a warrant to search a person or their property. Most times, evidence acquired without a search warrant cannot be used in court to convict a person of a crime. However, there are some exceptions in which a police officer can legally conduct a search without having a warrant.
The general rule
A police officer cannot search a person, or their property, whenever they want to. Under federal law, police officers must ask a judge for a legal document, a warrant, to legally carry out the search. To get a warrant, the police must have facts that show probable cause that they will find illegal items or evidence of a crime in the place they intend to search.
A police officer often needs a warrant so that whatever they find on a person’s property can be used in court as evidence. If a police officer finds illegal drugs in a house, for example, but they did not have permission to enter the house, the court cannot use the drugs as evidence to convict the house’s owner of a crime. However, there are some exceptions to this rule.
When a warrant is not necessary
In some situations, a police officer does not need a warrant to search a person or their property. In those specific situations, the evidence the police find is valid in court. However, for a warrantless search to be valid, one of the following must occur:
- The search is related to an arrest: after a legal arrest, a police officer has the right to search the person and the immediate area around them.
- The officer observes stolen, contraband or illegal property in plain view: an officer can search someone’s property if they can see that there are illegal or stolen objects inside.
- The officer has to take immediate action: when the officer has no time to get a warrant and harm could come to people if they don’t search right away (for example, they heard gunshots in an apartment or are chasing someone who they saw committing a crime)
- The individual consents to the search: the officer can search a person’s property if the person gives their free and voluntary consent.
When it comes to car searches, officers can also search if they have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains criminal evidence or that the person inside the vehicle committed a crime. Probable cause has to be based on specific facts and circumstances, not a feeling or a hunch. The officer must have reasonable grounds to search someone’s car. Otherwise, the search would be illegal.
The right to defense
If a law enforcement officer searches a person’s property without a warrant or the need to do so, the search would be illegal. If a search is illegal, anything the officers find during the search is not valid as evidence. That is why anyone subject to an illegal search can have the court drop their criminal charges. We all have the right to privacy, and not even the authorities can disrupt it without a valid reason.