When is a Warrantless Search Legal?

Anybody who has ever watched a television procedural or legal thriller likely imagines themselves as something of an expert on criminal law and the need for a warrant before police can conduct a search. Though the challenges and time delays involved in getting a warrant to make for great cliffhangers, the truth is that warrantless searches happen all the time: in fact, they’re the most common type of search that’s done.

How can that be? It’s all a question of whether law enforcement’s actions are seen to be reasonable, and reasonableness is defined as it is their judgment that there was a good reason to be suspicious of criminal activity.

The legal system has conducted countless reviews of the many circumstances under which police might want to conduct a search without a warrant. The best protection if you’ve been a victim of a warrantless search is to have a criminal law attorney representing you and to know your rights. Some of the times that warrantless searches are allowed include:

  • When consent has been given – Police can come to your home, your workplace, your vehicle and other locations and ask to conduct a search without a warrant. Though you are permitted to say no to this search, the police aren’t required to tell you that you have this right, and once it’s given, they are free to conduct a search. It’s important to note that if you have a roommate, they are not able to provide consent to search your personal area; similarly, landlords and hotel managers can’t give consent to search your room, and employers can’t provide access to personal areas like lockers.
  • In plain view – When evidence of criminal activity is plainly and unintentionally seen by the law enforcement officer in a home or car, they do not need a search warrant. This can’t be a result of going to extreme measures to see the property.
  • Incidental search – When an officer searches you and the immediate area immediately after or during an arrest, they do not need a warrant.
  • Emergency exception – When police reasonably feel that a search needs to be done to avoid somebody being hurt or to prevent a criminal act from taking place, no warrant is needed for them to enter a car or home and conduct a search.

If you find yourself subject to a warrantless search, it’s important that you make it clear that you do not consent to the search. Even if they don’t listen to you, doing so gives your criminal law attorney a good chance of fighting the admission of evidence found during a warrantless search.