The Fourth Amendment protects private citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The amendment reads:
“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.”
Obtaining a Search Warrant
Police officers must obtain written permission from a court of law in order to legally search and seize evidence from an individual or their property. A warrant authorizes the police to search a specific location and seize materials from that location. Before they can obtain a search warrant, law enforcement officers must convince a judge that they have probable cause or a reasonable belief that a crime has taken place. Police can only search areas specified in the search warrant. For example, if police have a warrant that specifies they are to search your garage, they cannot legally search other areas of your home.
When Is a Warrant Not Required?
If there is a reasonable expectation of privacy and there is no probable cause, a search warrant is required. However, if probable cause should occur, a search becomes legal without a warrant. Even with a reasonable expectation of privacy, the police can legally conduct a search without a warrant where probable cause is apparent. Search warrant exceptions include:
- Consent: If you freely and voluntarily agree to a search of your property, without being tricked or coerced into doing so, the police can search without a warrant.
- The Plain View Doctrine: If evidence is clearly visible, police can legally search and seize the evidence from your home without a warrant.
- Search incident in connection with an arrest: If you’ve been arrested for a crime, the police have the legal right to protect themselves by searching for weapons, evidence that could be destroyed, or accomplices to the crime. Officers may also conduct what’s known as a “protective sweep.” This enables them to walk through a location and visually inspect where an accomplice may be hiding.
- Exigent Circumstances: If the timeliness of a warrant would jeopardize public safety or result in the loss of evidence, police may legally perform a search without a warrant.