The United States Constitution, through its Fourth Amendment, protects you, your house and your belongings from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The Amendment is also the foundation of law for search warrants, surveillance, stop-and-frisk, safety inspections and more.
Reviewing the contents of the Fourth Amendment can help you better understand the search warrant process to prepare yourself if the police ever want to search you or your belongings.
When is a warrantless search legal?
A warrant is a legal permission from a court of law. In reality, police perform many searches without a warrant. If the circumstances allow for the following exemptions, an officer may conduct a warrantless search:
- Consent (i.e., you voluntarily allow the police to search)
- Plain View Doctrine (i.e., police can search and seize clearly visible evidence)
- Search incident to arrest (i.e., performing a search in connection with your arrest)
- Emergency (i.e., waiting for a warrant jeopardizes public safety or evidence preservation)
Police officers may pat down your clothing if they suspect you have a weapon. They can only look inside your pockets or bag if this pat down provides evidence of a weapon or crime.
What constitutes an illegal search?
An illegal police search occurs when you have a reasonable expectation of privacy and the officer does not have probable cause. Thus, police continuing a search and seizure without a warrant likely violates your constitutional rights.
Remember that you can legally refuse a police request to search without a warrant. Ask the officers for identification and to read the search warrant if they have one.