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When can police take action without a search warrant?

On Behalf of | Apr 4, 2024 | Criminal Defense

Police officers use searches and seizures to find and collect evidence associated with criminal acts. In many cases, they are legally required have a warrant to conduct a search or seize evidence on private property. But, that’s not always the case.

There are circumstances that justify a warrantless search. Understanding these exceptions is crucial for comprehending the balance between individual privacy rights and the needs of law enforcement to protect public safety and investigate crimes.

Consent searches

If an individual voluntarily consents to a search of their property, police don’t need a warrant. Consent must be freely given and not coerced. The person giving consent must have the authority to do so over the property involved.

Searches incident to a lawful arrest

When police lawfully arrest an individual, they may search the person and the area within the immediate control of the person. This is to ensure officer safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.

Plain view doctrine

Police officers don’t need a warrant to seize evidence if it’s plainly visible to them from a place where they have a right to be. For instance, if an officer sees illegal drugs on the coffee table from the front door, they can seize the drugs without a warrant.

Exigent circumstances

In situations where waiting to obtain a warrant would either pose a danger to life, allow a suspect to escape or lead to the destruction of evidence, officers can proceed without a warrant. Examples include entering a building to prevent an ongoing assault or to extinguish a fire where evidence is at risk.

Automobile exception

A vehicle is mobile and has a reduced expectation of privacy. This is the basis for police being able to search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe it contains evidence of a crime.

Lawful stop and frisk

Officers can conduct a pat-down search of a person if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe the individual is dangerous and armed. The pat-down search is limited to outside of their clothing, and it is done to improve the safety of the officer and those nearby.

As long as one of these conditions is met, any evidence seized is likely admissible as part of a criminal case. Yet, if a warrant-based or warrantless search is conducted improperly, evidence linked to that effort may be inadmissible. This is just one of the considerations that criminal defense attorneys take into account when defending the rights of those who have been accused of wrongdoing.