When Do Police Have the Legal Right to Search Your Property?
As you may or may not know, the fourth amendment protects you from illegal search and seizure. In fact, it guarantees “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” going on to state this this right “shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation.” Further, it clarifies that a warrant must specifically outline “the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” But what does this mean when the police want to search your property? Can searches be legally conducted without a warrant? And what does a warrant allow?
Let’s start with the concept of probable cause, which is required to get a search warrant. Unfortunately, this is difficult to define, as it is basically a belief, albeit one based on some kind of evidence, that a person has committed a crime. That crime could be theft, drug use, murder, or something else, but so long as the officers or litigators are able to prove that their deduction of criminal activity is probable (which is to say, more likely than not) a search warrant will likely be granted. That said, search warrants must succinctly describe not only the property to be searched (home, office, car, etc.), but also the evidence that is being sought (stolen property, drugs and drug paraphernalia, murder weapon, etc.). So when you are served with a search warrant, take the time to read it carefully before simply allowing police to look wherever they like.
Of course, there are instances in which a search warrant is not required for a legal search of your property. First and foremost, you may give your permission for a search, especially if you have nothing to hide. Just keep in mind that any evidence of crime an officer finds during such a search (even if it is unrelated to the purpose of the search) may be seized and used against you since there is no warrant to specify what is to be seized. So if you let the cops in to search for stolen property and they turn up drug paraphernalia, consider yourself busted. In the event that you are tricked or coerced into allowing the search you may be able to invalidate it later on, but don’t count on it.
Police may also search your property if evidence of a crime is in plain view. So don’t open the door if your bong and your stash are clearly visible on the counter behind you. If you are being arrested a search of your property may also be conducted in certain instances. For example, if police have been called to your home or have chased you there and they arrest you in the home, they have the right to protect their own safety by searching for weapons or accomplices. And finally, there are “exigent circumstances”, which generally pertain to criminal suspects attempting to destroy evidence while the police are in pursuit.
If you feel that you have been unfairly treated when it comes to the process of search and seizure, keep in mind that the fourth amendment only protects you from “unreasonable search and seizure”, the operative word being “unreasonable”. You have a lot of latitude under the parameters outlined by the law, but if you are involved in criminal activity, or the police have sufficient cause to believe that you are, you may be subject to a search and seizure of property. And whether you’re guilty or not, if evidence turns up to support their theory, it’s in your best interest to seek out criminal lawyers in Ringwood, Raleigh, Reno, or wherever the crime allegedly occurred to go over the warrant with a fine-tooth comb and make sure the process was legal.