If you have watched much television in your life, you have probably seen a procedural legal drama or gritty crime film in which law enforcement agents must impatiently wait for a search warrant before being able to search a suspect’s home or office. Sometimes the plot even revolves around evidence collected from an illegal search performed without a warrant being thrown out of a court case (referred to as suppression of evidence).
From these pop culture representations it certainly seems like the police need a warrant 100% of the time in order to search your residence, but this is not the case.
When is a search warrant issued?
A search warrant will only be issued in the event that law enforcement agents can demonstrate that they have probable cause (defined as “reasonable grounds to believe that a particular person has committed a crime”). Search warrant request records are usually sealed (so as to not compromise future investigation efforts), so it is impossible to estimate how often these requests are denied. Anecdotally, most are approved; investigators usually only request them when they know that they have grounds for issuance of a search warrant to satisfy a judge’s concerns.
When is a warrant NOT needed?
There are four conditions under which police officers do not need a warrant in order to search your residence. Any evidence collected under these circumstances is admissible in court.
- The search was consented to – A consent search refers to when an individual allows an officer to search their home or car. This must not be the landlord or owner, but the person who legally inhabits the space.
- The items were in plain view – The plain view doctrine covers instances in which the law enforcement officer unintentionally sees a weapon or other evidence from a legal vantage point.
- Incidental searches – An officer can search an individual and their vicinity immediately after an arrest in order to ensure that the space is safe and free from weapons.
- An emergency may be occurring – If officers believe that a crime is in progress or an individual is in immediate danger, they can enter a home or vehicle without a warrant.
What should you do if you do not consent to a search?
If police officers arrive at your residence and inform you they are about to conduct a search, he first thing you should do is ask to see the search warrant. If they do not have one, or refuse to provide the document – remember: they may be planning to conduct a warrantless search based on one of the four above criteria. Because of this, you should always stay out of the way of law enforcement agents – never try to get in their way or prevent them from conducting a search.
You should, however, make it clear (verbally) that you do not consent to the search; remember, if they do not meet the above criteria and they do not have a warrant, any evidence collected will not be admissible.
Most importantly, you need to immediately contact a reliable and skilled criminal defense lawyer who can help you navigate the legal system – your representation can be the difference between a conviction and having your case thrown out.