Most people are aware that certain situations require police officers to obtain a warrant before they can search someone’s home or other property. But what exactly is a search warrant, and what can law enforcement search for and seize under it? To help you better understand search warrants, we answered four of the most frequently asked questions about them.
- What is a Search Warrant?
A search warrant is an order signed by a judge that authorizes law enforcement to search for specific objects or materials at a definite location. The order must be based on an affidavit, a document signed under oath that expresses the belief that law enforcement will find certain items at the mentioned location, backed up by facts. In most instances, performing a search without a warrant is unconstitutional. Officers have ten days from its issuance to execute the search warrant. Otherwise, they must make a new showing to the judge.
- How Do Police Obtain Search Warrants?
To obtain a warrant, a police officer must convince a judge that there is probable cause to conduct a search. Probable cause includes the belief that someone committed a crime or that they will find evidence of criminal activity. The warrant will specify the scope of the search by defining a location and time and directing officers to search and seize particular objects, such as illegal drugs or firearms.
- What Can Police Search For and Seize Under a Warrant?
Police officers can only search the location described in the warrant. For example, if the document specifies a backyard, they cannot search a house on the property as well. However, that does not mean officers can only seize items listed in the search warrant. If law enforcement reasonably comes across contraband or evidence of a crime that the document doesn’t mention, they can still seize it.
- When Are Search Warrants Not Required?
While most legal situations in the United States require a search warrant, there are a few exceptions.
If the person in control of the premises freely and voluntarily agrees to a search, then the police do not need a search warrant. This type of search is known as a consent search. The consent search is considered valid as long as officers limit their search to only what the person agreed to.
The Plain View Doctrine
A law enforcement officer also does not need a warrant to seize evidence “in plain view.” The officer must be legitimately in the area where they first spotted the contraband in order to seize it, though. For example, if an officer has lawfully pulled a driver over and sees an illegal substance in the passenger seat, they have the authority to seize it and arrest them.
Search in Connection With Arrest
A search in connection with an arrest is another exception to the search warrant requirement. After a lawful arrest is made, a police officer has the right to search the arrestee. They may also make a protective sweep of the premises if they reasonably suspect a dangerous accomplice may be hiding in the area.
The Emergency Exception
As a general rule, the police have the authority to conduct a warrantless search if the time in which a warrant can be issued would jeopardize public safety or lead to the loss of crucial evidence. An officer’s duty to protect people and preserve evidence outweighs the warrant requirement in these situations. One circumstance that warrants an emergency search is a police officer pursuing a fleeing felon and continuing the chase into the suspect’s home in order to make the arrest.
Stop and Frisk
Police officers may also stop someone they reasonably suspect of criminal activity and frisk the person for weapons if they believe they are armed and dangerous. This type of warrantless search is known as a Terry frisk. If the frisk leads to probable cause for an actual arrest, the office can conduct a search in connection with an arrest, as mentioned above.
Get Legal Help
Grabb & Durando is a Tucson-based law firm that proudly represents the people of this area. If you are facing criminal charges based on evidence you believe was illegally obtained, we can help you. Our criminal defense attorneys have a demonstrated record of success and will aggressively defend your rights.