The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects Americans throughout the country from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Typically, this requires police officers and other law enforcement officers to go to court and get a search warrant before searching your home or your belongings.  In some cases, they may be permitted to perform searches or pat-downs without a warrant, but you always have the right to ask to see a warrant before they search anything.  The Law Offices of Randolph Rice’s Baltimore criminal defense lawyers explain some of the rules and procedures surrounding how search warrants work and when a cop needs to produce a warrant to search you or your things.

Can I Ask to See a Cop’s Warrant?

If a police officer is trying to affect a search using a search warrant, they should have the warrant.  Police should be able to show you the warrant, show you the judge’s signature, and prove that they have the right to be there before making you step aside or forcing themselves into your home to perform a search.  If they don’t show you the warrant, you can absolutely request to see it and check that it’s valid.  A valid search warrant should have the following information:

  • The date and time it was issued
  • The place to be searched
  • The items the police expect to find there
  • Any other limitations to the search
  • The judge’s signature

In many cases, searches are still legal as long as the officer thinks the search warrant is valid.  However, if you see any errors or if they refuse to produce the warrant, you have the right to refuse the search.  If they perform the search anyway, the court will sort out whether the search was legal – and your attorney can fight the case in court.

When Do Police Need a Warrant?

Generally speaking, the Fourth Amendment expects a search warrant for every search and an arrest warrant for every arrest.  In reality, this does not always work.  Many situations in policing call for quick action, and it may be impossible for a police officer to pause what is happening, go to court, have a judge sign a warrant, and come back.  Because of the way these rules work, there are some exceptions to the warrant requirement.

Definition of a “Search”

First, police only need a search warrant if they are performing a “search.”  There are dozens of landmark cases dealing with what does and does not constitute a “search” or a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.  For instance, looking in through an open front door and seeing signs of a drug crime is not a search.  Neither is looking through a car window during a traffic ticket stop or DUI investigation and spotting an illegal weapon.

Pat downs and other brief intrusions also might not constitute a search and do not require a search warrant.  Similarly, inventories of your car or bag’s contents when you or a vehicle are taken into custody are not considered “searches” and do not require a warrant.

Any evidence that the officer can see in “plain view” can be seized without needing a search warrant, too, even if that means entering your home to get it.

Exigent Circumstances

Police can also skip the warrant requirement if there are circumstances that require quick action.  These are known as “exigent circumstances” or “exigencies,” and they typically apply to skip the warrant requirement in the following situations:

  • Moveable property – Police typically do not need a warrant to search a car or another piece of property that could be moved away before they come back with a warrant.
  • Hot pursuit – If police are chasing a fleeing criminal or suspect, they typically do not need a search warrant to enter a house or another piece of private property while chasing the criminal.
  • Medical emergencies – Police can legally enter a house or other private property if their goal is to help with a medical emergency or a safety issue rather than to search the property. This is commonly used in cases involving potential domestic violence.
  • Destruction of evidence – If the police officer has good reason to suspect that evidence is being destroyed, they can skip getting a warrant and seize the evidence immediately.

Probable Cause

Whether the police officer has a search warrant or not, they cannot perform a search without “probable cause.”  This means that they must have articulable facts that they can point to to show that it is likely it was likely that the search would produce evidence of a crime.  To get a search warrant in the first place, the officer must convince the judge they have probable cause.  If they perform a warrantless search, they still must have probable cause to make the search legal.

Some things, like pat-downs, can be performed with a lower legal standard.  Instead of “probable cause,” a pat-down could take place for officer safety or if the police officer has “reasonable suspicion” that crime or weapons are present.  If a pat-down leads to probable cause, the officer might then be able to perform a full search.

What Happens if a Search is Illegal?

If a police officer violates your civil rights by performing an illegal search, any evidence they gain should be thrown out.  This is called evidence “suppression,” and it is the main legal tool that defense attorneys have to protect their clients from charges brought about by illegal searches and rights violations.  In addition to throwing out the illegally obtained evidence, anything stemming from the illegal search (such as an arrest or additional evidence) should also be inadmissible in court.

Generally, you cannot resist an arrest or a search, even if it is unlawful.  Instead, any challenges to the evidence or the arrest must be made later in court.  Your attorney can help you fight illegal searches and seizures and protect your rights.

Call Our Baltimore Criminal Defense Lawyers for a Free Consultation

If you or a loved one was subjected to a search where the police refused to produce a search warrant, call a lawyer immediately.  In many cases, these searches might have violated your civil rights, and you could be entitled to have evidence suppressed and have the charges against you thrown out.  For help with your criminal case, call the Baltimore criminal defense lawyers at The Law Offices of Randolph Rice today.  Our number is (410) 694-7291.