The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states clearly that you (a member of the people) cannot be subjected to “unreasonable” searches and seizures that are not validated by a search warrant. Despite how tangle-free the wording is in the amendment, there is actually a great deal of wiggle room the police and investigators can work with in regards to finding evidence when and where they want. If you know anyone who has ever been arrested for a drug crime, even simple possession, they can tell you this pretty well.
When Can the Police Search Without a Warrant?
You may be surprised to learn that most police searches occur without a warrant. But how can this be? It all boils down to that one word in the Fourth Amendment: unreasonable. In many respects, unreasonable just means unsolicited, so the police can’t pull your address randomly out of a hat and come kick down your door. Instead, they need something else to let them conduct a warrantless search.
The four main situations that allow police to search without a warrant are:
- Your consent: The police don’t have to tell you that you have the right to refuse a warrantless search, so they might just say, “We would like to search your home now.” Unless you immediately object, they’ll assume you are permitting them to enter and that you have given your consent. Whatever they find once you consent to a search is usable as evidence against you. Consent only applies to common areas of your property and those areas you specifically control, such as your bedroom but not that of your roommate.
- Plain view: A warrant is not necessary when a police officer can clearly see or perceive evidence of a crime without needing any effort. Police often rely on plain view searches for drug arrests, for it includes what an officer can see and smell, such as the scent of marijuana on a person. For example, if an officer pulls you over and sees a bong in the backseat of your car, they can search both you and your vehicle for drugs and drug paraphernalia.
- Impoundment: If your car is impounded in connection to an arrest of criminal activity, it can be searched top-to-bottom, front-to-back by the police without a warrant. This comprehensive search can even include the forceful unlocking of vehicle compartments.
- Hidden dangers: If an officer believes they are in danger, that evidence of a crime could soon be destroyed, or that a potential accomplice to a crime is hiding nearby, they can conduct a warrantless search. This is often called a “search incident to arrest” and includes the act of conducting a protective sweep of the area. If you closely match the description of a murder suspect on the streets, for example, the police can detain and search you, believing you may be a dangerous person. Even if you are innocent of that crime, they can arrest and charge you for any other crimes that search might reveal, such as having some drugs on your person.
- Emergency circumstances: In situations where the public is in immediate danger or evidence could be destroyed at any second, the police can conduct a warrantless search, stating that the process of going to go get a warrant would have caused someone to get hurt or evidence to be lost. This is the biggest gray area in warrantless searches, for an officer essentially has the right to operate on a hunch.
You Can Never Be Too Safe
The best way to prevent unwarranted, unreasonable searches and seizures of yourself and your property is to know your rights ahead of time and to remain careful. If the police show up at your door and tell you they want to search your home, you have the right to refuse them. If they say they have a warrant, ask to see it and have it read back to you. Police can legally lie to you during what they consider to be an investigation, so don’t just take their word on it if you suspect something unjust is afoot.
No matter what follows, remain calm and never pose a danger to the police. At your earliest opportunity, you need to call a criminal defense lawyer. If you weren’t arrested, it is still a good idea to let an attorney know what happened, as you may have a civil rights case. For legal protection in Oklahoma, you can turn to the Law Offices of Keith J. Nedwick, P.C. and our Norman criminal defense attorneys.