The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects private citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. According to the law, law enforcement officers must obtain written permission (or a warrant) from a court of law to legally search a person and his or her property and seize evidence while investigating from potential criminal activity.
A warrant is a legal order that is signed by a judge, authorizing the police to search a specific location and seize certain materials from that location at a specific time. Law enforcement will provide their own evidence for the warrant and the suspect is not present when the warrant is issued. As soon as the warrant is received, the police can only search the location specified in the warrant.
However, there are instances when law enforcement can conduct a search without a warrant, and most searches actually do happen without the issuance of a warrant.
Keep in mind, if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy and there is no probable cause for an arrest, then a search warrant is necessary. On the other hand, if probable cause does occur, a search without a warrant can be legal.
The following are the main circumstances in which a warrant is not required for police to search your home:
- Consent – If the individual who is in control of the property consents to a search without being forced or tricked into doing so, then a search without a warrant is permissible.
- Plain view – If law enforcement has the right to be on the premises and notices contraband or evidence of a criminal offense that is in clear view, that particular object may be lawfully seized and used as evidence in criminal court.
- Search incident to arrest – If you are being arrested in your home, police may search for weapons or other accomplices to protect their safety, or even conduct a search to prevent the destruction of evidence.
- Exigent circumstances – In some instances, the process of obtaining a valid search warrant could jeopardize public safety or could result in a loss of evidence, such as occasions of “hot pursuit” in which a suspect is evading police.
So if the police show up at your house, do make it clear that you are not consenting to a search. Ask the officers for identification and an explanation as to why they are there and what they’re looking for.