search warrantThe Fourth Amendment indeed talks about limiting searches of people’s “houses and effects” only upon a warrant supported by probable cause.  There are, however, a number of circumstances when police are permitted to conduct searches, and seize evidence, without the need for a warrant.  

Seven Basic Exceptions To The Warrant Requirement

Stop and frisk:  Stopping someone on the street is a detention or, in Fourth Amendment terms, a “seizure” of the person.  Furthermore, frisking someone’s outer clothing for weapons is clearly a “search.”  

So, how do cops get away with conducting searches and seizures like the stop and frisk without a warrant?  Well, as the Supreme Court said in Terry v. Ohio, as long as the cop has a reasonable suspicion that a person may have committed or is about to commit a crime, then the officer can stop that person on the street.  In addition, if the cop has a reasonable suspicion that a person is armed, then the cop can do a brief pat down.  

Consent:   One of the most common type of warrantless searches is the consent search.  The police are particularly fond of the consent search because it is a “free pass” to search and seize things.  They do not need a warrant, or probable cause, or reasonable suspicion to conduct a search.  As long as the person to be searched has the proper authority to give consent, then courts will view a person’s consent as the person’s voluntary waiver of his or her Fourth Amendment rights.  

There are three main types of consent searches: (i) street encounters, (ii) traffic stops, and (iii) home searches.  You should be careful about tactics police officers use to get someone to consent. 

Plain view:  The seizure of something in “plain view” is like what its name suggests – that police have the authority to seize items that are plainly visible to a police officer and clearly illegal in nature.  The fact that an item is clearly illegal contraband makes it reasonable that a warrant is not required.  

Exigent circumstances: “Exigent circumstances” is another way to say “an emergency.”  Getting a warrant takes time.  So, when something is about to happen that requires immediate action or is needed to prevent imminent danger, then the police may be able to avoid the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.  Some circumstances that may be considered “exigent” such that the police can run into a private building without a warrant include: When people are in imminent danger; when evidence is about to be destroyed; or When a felony suspect is about to escape.

Hot pursuit:  The title of this exception to the warrant requirement tells you all that you need to know.  “Hot pursuit” is characterized by the classic police chase.  Most times, the Fourth Amendment requires that a cop get a warrant to go into someone’s home.  Yet, if a cop is chasing a felony suspect, and the suspect runs into a private home, the officers are able to follow, without getting a warrant, under the hot pursuit exception.

Search Incident To Arrest: Search incident to a lawful arrest is another exception to the general rule that the police must have a warrant before executing a search.  If you have been lawfully arrested for anything (such as an open probation/violation warrant, driving under suspension, OVI, theft, domestic violence, or whatever the case may be) then the police may execute a search of your person, clothes, anything you are carrying (including containers such as a cigarette package or your backpack), and even your car, without a warrant

Automobile exception: The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement provides that cops may search a car, or other motor vehicle, without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains illegal items.

Remember, the rule under the Fourth Amendment is that if cops want to search or seize something, then they need to get a warrant.  However, there are a number of exceptions to that rule, which we just covered above.

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Alex Deardorff
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Criminal defense attorney Alex Deardorff is dedicated to serving her clients throughout the Cincinnati area
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