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3 times police officers can lawfully conduct a search without a warrant

On Behalf of | May 31, 2024 | Criminal Defense

The surest way for police officers to conduct a legal search is to obtain a warrant signed by a judge. Search warrants can give police officers access to homes and vehicles. They can also compel people to submit to testing that they might otherwise refuse.

There are certain scenarios in which police officers can theoretically conduct searches without a warrant and without violating the Fourth Amendment right of an individual to be free from unreasonable searches. The following are the most common reasons for police officers to conduct searches that are technically legal without a warrant for the search at issue.

People voluntarily abandoning items

Those who have watched police procedural television shows may be familiar with a trick that police officers could use to obtain genetic information from someone. They offer coffee or a soda while the suspect is in state custody. The person drinks the beverage and then discards the container or cup. Police officers can then theoretically use any trace biological residue left behind for testing purposes.

Something similar occurs when people discard items at businesses or their own homes. When someone wheels their trash container out to the curb for weekly pickup, the items inside essentially become accessible to police officers. However, waste receptacles still near a home and therefore protected by curtilage rules are not subject to search without a warrant.

People giving their permission

It is quite common for those dealing with police officers to voluntarily submit themselves to all kinds of invasive questioning and searches. People frequently operate under the assumption that their cooperation with law enforcement could lead to a more favorable outcome, such as police officers realizing they aren’t potential suspects.

Unfortunately, the exact opposite is likely to occur. When officers have permission to conduct a search, they can latch on to any small indicator of criminal activity they uncover and can use that as a justification to arrest someone or conduct a more extensive search.

Officers establishing probable cause

The final reason that police officers can excuse an otherwise inappropriate search is that they claim to have noticed something that made them suspect a specific criminal offense. Smelling what might be methamphetamine could be probable cause to enter a home or search a vehicle. Seeing what looks like a firearm in someone’s pants could be the necessary probable cause to conduct a physical search.

Police officers often rely on people not knowing their rights or giving them up to build a case. Learning about the rules for police searches can benefit those facing police investigations or criminal charges. Inappropriate or illegal searches can theoretically help someone develop a viable criminal defense strategy. Evidence found through illegal searches might ultimately be inadmissible during a trial.