When is a search warrant required before a police officer can conduct a search?

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that people are entitled to protection from “unreasonable” searches and seizures, and that no search warrant can be issued unless it is signed under oath, supported by probable cause and specifically describes the place to be searched or the persons and things to be seized.

However, to reflect the realities of how police officers must do their job and to deal with situations that are encountered in the field, where it may not be practical or necessary to obtain a warrant, the courts have created several exceptions to the requirement that a warrant must be obtained before a search and/or seizure can take place. A large body of case law has developed on the issue of what is—and what is not—an “unreasonable” search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. These exceptions include:

  1. A search done after a lawful arrest—if an individual is lawfully arrested, that person is subject to a full custodial search of their person and the immediate area around him or her.
  2. Plain view—if evidence of a crime or contraband is plainly visible to a police officer from an area that he or she has a right to be, it is subject to seizure without a warrant. A simple example would be drugs or a weapon lying in the front seat of a car if the officer had a valid reason to stop the car, or drug paraphernalia lying on a table in a room in which the officer has a right to be.
  3. Protective pat down—if an officer has reasonable grounds to believe that an individual might be armed, he or she can conduct a limited pat down of the individual’s outer clothing to ensure that the individual is not armed. If the officer feels an object that he or she believes may be a weapon or poses a threat to the officer’s safety, the officer can remove the object.
  4. Search of the interior of an automobile–the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement provides that an officer with probable cause to believe the evidence of a crime will be found in a vehicle may stop the car and conduct a warrantless search of the entire vehicle and all containers located within the vehicle that may hold the item sought. To fit within the automobile exception, there must be independent probable cause to believe that evidence will be found in the vehicle.
  5. Consent—if the individual gives consent to the officers to search their person or a particular area, a warrant is not required. However, the scope of the search is limited to the scope of consent given. For example, if the individual allows the officers to search one room, but not another, the consent only applies to the room for which permission was given.
  6. There are several other exceptions to the warrant requirement that may apply to other situations, such as searches of individuals who are on probation or parole, administrative searches conducted by government authorities such as the fire or health department and searches conduced in airport for security purposes.

If the court finds that no valid exception to the warrant requirement applies and/or that the police officer did not have the right to conduct the search or seizure, the evidence that is obtained may not be admissible in court. A motion to suppress the evidence must be filed in order to protect the defendant’s rights.

 

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