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When can searches proceed without warrants?

On Behalf of | Feb 19, 2024 | Criminal Defense

The requirement that law enforcement officers secure a warrant before searching a person or their property is a cornerstone principle to protect individuals’ privacy rights. With that said, while a search warrant is required in most cases, there are specific situations when police can legally search without obtaining a warrant.

These exceptions allow law enforcement to respond swiftly in certain circumstances. Being able to search without a warrant prevents the destruction of evidence and protects public safety.

Consent searches

One of the simplest exceptions is when an individual consents to the police to search. A warrant is unnecessary if someone voluntarily lets officers search their property or possessions. Law enforcement can’t force or trick someone into consenting to a search.

Searches incident to arrest

Following a lawful arrest, police can search the person arrested and the immediate area around them without a warrant. This protects officers from potential threats, such as hidden weapons, and prevents evidence destruction.

Vehicle searches

The Supreme Court established that vehicles have a lower expectation of privacy than homes. If police have probable cause to believe a vehicle contains evidence of a crime, they can search it without a warrant because the car could be moved out of the jurisdiction before police can obtain a warrant.

Exigent circumstances

Exigent circumstances refer to situations wherein waiting to obtain a warrant would either endanger life, lead to the escape of a suspect, or result in evidence destruction.

Plain view doctrine

If an officer is lawfully present in a location and observes incriminating evidence in plain view, they may seize the evidence without a warrant. The officer must legally be able to view the evidence and immediately recognize its incriminating character.

Unlawful searches and seizures are the basis of some criminal defense strategies. While an illegal search can’t force a case to be dropped, it can make evidence inadmissible, which can weaken a prosecutor’s case significantly.