While some people think that law enforcement is an unstoppable force, there are actually limits on what the police can and cannot do. One of the laws that limit the power of law enforcement is the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. Although it can be overwhelming to determine how to proceed when law enforcement requests to search you, your home, or your vehicle, it helps substantially to understand when law enforcement is legally allowed to perform such a search. Additionally, it is important to remember that you should never attempt to physically stop police from conducting a search. Instead, if the evidence is improperly or illegally collected, you should document this occurrence and let your attorney raise this point in court.
Law enforcement is permitted to search you, your house, or your vehicle, but must have justification to do so. In many situations, this means that law enforcement must obtain an arrest or search warrant from a judge who, after reviewing the relevant factors, will determine if probable cause exists on which to issue a warrant. This means that unless one of several exceptions applies, law enforcement is unable to search you without a warrant. If law enforcement violates this warrant requirement and none of the warrant exceptions apply, any evidence that is seized will not be allowed to be used at trial.
This area of the law is very technical and what may seem like a minor detail can make all the difference when determining the legality of the search. That being said, below are the exceptions to the warrant rule along with very basic explanations.
Consent: If a person tells the officers they can search then the officers don’t need a warrant. We will discuss this more below.
Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest: If an officer is making a legal arrest they can conduct a search without a search warrant.
Plain View: If the officer can see evidence of illegality in plain view he can conduct a search.
Stop and Frisk: An officer can stop you for a short period of time if they have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a criminal act is afoot.
Automobile Exception: If an officer has probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains evidence of a crime they can search an automobile without the need for a warrant. However, they can only search where the type of evidence they have probable cause to believe is present could be located. For example, if they have probable cause to believe that someone has a stolen shotgun in their car, this exception to the warrant requirement would not allow them to search the glove box and console.
Hot Pursuit: An example of the hot pursuit exception is if a suspect is being chased and runs into their home, the officer could go into the home and search without the need to a warrant.
Exigent Circumstances: If there is an emergency situation, law enforcement can forcibly enter a building without a warrant. If once inside they notice evidence of criminality, they could search without the need for the warrant because they would be invoking the plain view exception mentioned above.
The law recognizes that constitutional protections do not arise every time a law enforcement officer interacts with citizens. This means that law enforcement is allowed to ask for your name or other information. In these types of casual encounters, you also have the right to immediately leave, even though directly walking away from an officer without answering his or her questions might not be a wise idea. Constitutional protections do not arise unless you have been “seized,” which means that your liberty or freedom of movement has been restrained in such a way that you no longer feel free to leave. Before law enforcement can stop you in such a way, they must have reasonable suspicion that you have committed or are about to commit an offense. In these situations, law enforcement is even permitted to frisk if if they suspect that you are armed and dangerous. If law enforcement acts in such a way, as the Supreme Court has articled in the case of Terry v. Ohio, your Fourth Amendment rights have not been violated.
Being stopped by law enforcement can be an overwhelming experience, especially if the officers are asking to search you or your belongings. As such, individuals often unwittingly “consent” to being searched. If a person consents to a search, they have provided law enforcement with an exception to the legal requirement of a search warrant and any evidence obtained during the search will likely be allowed in court. Therefore, it is important to remember that you do not have to consent to a search. If an officer asks if they can come into your home or search you or your belongings you can tell them no that you do not consent. Of course, if they start searching you anyway then you must be compliant. However, you can at least be confident that you did not provide the officer with an exception to the rules and that he will need to show he conducted a legal search or any evidence found cannot be used in court.
If you or a loved one has had a run-in with law enforcement, you should not hesitate to contact the criminal lawyers at Kruger & Hodges. We understand the various laws involved with police searches and the full protections offered by the Fourth Amendment. If you find yourself subject to illegal law enforcement searches and seizures, contact our law office today to schedule a free consultation.