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Search and Seizure: When Can the Government Invade Your Privacy?

Police 3Imagine this scenario: You’re sitting at home when you hear a knock at your door. You open it to find a couple of local police officers in front of you, asking if they can take a look around your house. Understanding whether you are legally obliged to allow them to conduct a search of your home, or if you are within your rights to refuse them, is critical. Many people believe that they are obligated to permit officers to enter their private property; however, this is not always the case.
The Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment means that police are unable to conduct a search and seizure without a valid search warrant. A search warrant is issued by a judge and gives law enforcement authority to enter a specific location and seize particular items.
How do police obtain a search warrant?
To obtain a search warrant, police must demonstrate probable cause that a crime took place, that the items they are searching for are connected to that crime, and that the items are most likely found in the location they are requesting the warrant for.
What makes a search warrant valid?
The validity of a search warrant depends on four things.

  1. The warrant must be filed in good faith by the police officer, so they must genuinely believe that the location is where they will find the items they are searching for.
  2. There must reliable information showing probable cause to search.
  3. A neutral and detached judge must issue the warrant – so someone who is in no way connected to the crime or persons involved in the crime.
  4. The warrant must clearly state the specific place that will be searched as well as any items to be seized.

The last point is particularly crucial, as police are not allowed to search for items outside the specified area or seize items outside those listed in the warrant. The only exception is if they deem it necessary to do so to protect their own safety or the safety of others, or if they believe doing so will stop evidence from being destroyed.
Are police ever allowed to conduct a search and seizure without a valid search warrant?
There are some instances where police are permitted to carry out a search without a search warrant. The circumstances in which this can occur include:

  • If the owner of the property or area gives consent for the search to take place.
  • If the officer is on the premises lawfully and can see the evidence in plain view.
  • If the officer is making an arrest, they are authorized to also search that person and their immediate surroundings for weapons or other potentially dangerous items. This is also true if a person is arrested while in or near a vehicle.
  • If an officer believes the evidence will be destroyed or other people could be in danger before they have time to secure a search warrant.
  • If an officer believes that contraband is contained inside a vehicle.
  • If an officer is in “hot pursuit” of a criminal and that criminal enters a private dwelling.

What happens if a search was conducted unlawfully?
If evidence is obtained without a valid search warrant and none of the above exceptions apply, this evidence may be inadmissible in court under the exclusionary rule. Any evidence gathered related to that evidence may also be excluded.
What should you do if police knock on the door and ask to search your property?
If you do not want the officer to search your property, it is vital that you clearly state they do not have permission to do so. You can ask them to see a search warrant, which they should provide if one has been obtained. If they do not have a valid search warrant, you can refuse entry; but bear in mind it is possible they may be able to search anyway due to one of the reasons giving them authority without a search warrant as described above.
The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches, so a police officer cannot argue that the search and seizure is necessary because of a hunch or feeling – they must have reasonable evidence and information that they are doing so necessarily.
If you or someone you know has had a search and seizure carried out on your property, the Complete Legal Defense Team can help. Call us today at (843) 701-5602 for a confidential consultation.

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