Can Police Conduct a Search Without a Warrant?

The short answer is Yes. Under certain circumstances, the police are authorized to conduct a search without first obtaining a search warrant. Below I discuss the most common situations when the police can conduct a search without a warrant.

  • Consent. The most common exception to the warrant requirement is consent. Consent must be freely and voluntarily given by a person with a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area or property to be searched. You can consent to the search of your car, your home, or even your person. However, you also have the right to refuse to consent. In most instances, it is best to never provide law enforcement with consent to search. It is not illegal to say to simply say no.
  • Plain View. An officer may seize evidence without a warrant if an officer is lawfully in the area when he observes the potential evidence in plain view. For example, if you are pulled over and while talking to you the officer notices a sawed off shotgun on your back seat, he is does not need a warrant to collect the illegal item. However, if an officer were to climb over your fence and look into your garage and see a stolen car, the Plain View exception would not apply because the officer was not legally on your property.
  • Search Incident to An Arrest. After making a lawful arrest, an officer may search an individual's person and his immediate surroundings for weapons or evidence. If you are arrested as a result of a traffic stop, the officer has the right to search the passenger compartment of your vehicle. If you are arrested in your home, the police may search the area you were in as well as adjoining areas.
  • Exigent Circumstances. Police are not required to obtain a search warrant if they believe that evidence may be destroyed or others may be placed in danger in the time it would take to secure the warrant. For example, if they knock an apartment door to ask about someone selling narcotics and after the door is opened they see someone rush to the bathroom carrying apparent narcotics, the police could enter to prevent the evidence from being flushed down the toilet.
  • Hot Pursuit. Police may enter a private dwelling if they are in "hot pursuit" of a fleeing criminal. Once inside a dwelling, police may search the entire area without first obtaining a search warrant.

If you have questions about the legality of a search the police conducted of you, your home or your car, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.