If there were no restrictions on what the police could do, they might target entire neighborhoods of people using stop-and-frisk policies or questionable traffic stops. The Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures.
It therefore helps to limit when police officers can search your vehicle, your home or your person. There are several scenarios in which a police officer can search, and it’s good to know those rules before an encounter with a police officer.
When is it potentially legal or a police officer to search?
1. When they have permission
Most police officers will slip a friendly question in during a conversation with someone inquiring about whether they could do a quick search. People want to be polite and comply with an officer, so they often give permission.
They think the situation will result in a brief search, and then they will be on their way. However, the officer finds the utility knife that they use for their job installing carpeting or claims that there are drugs in the trunk of their vehicle. People all too often give an officer permission for the search that leads to their arrest.
2. When they have probable cause
If an officer has reason to believe that a crime is in progress or has just occurred, they can conduct searches and detain individuals as necessary. For example, if an officer hears something that sounds like a violent assault behind the closed door of an apartment, they could potentially force entry to intervene and protect the person under attack.
Similarly, officers can force their way onto properties during a hot pursuit from a crime scene elsewhere. They can also search a person or a vehicle when they have probable cause to suspect a crime. Searching a person typically requires a belief that there could reasonably be a weapon present.
3. When they have a warrant
Without probable cause or the consent of the person involved, a police officer can typically only search an individual or their property when they have a warrant. Physical searches of an individual are standard protocol when placing someone in state custody. A warrant for someone’s arrest or for the search of their property can give an officer the permission they need to look for evidence of a crime.
If a police officer breaks the rules related to searches, a defendant’s lawyer may prevent the courts from using the evidence that they unfairly gathered. Learning more about your rights can help you determine the best criminal defense strategy when accused of breaking the law.