Thousands of court cases have addressed the question: Did the police act legally when entering a home, business, or car, and then performing a search? Learn about some of the most basic elements of law that make a police search legal or unlawful.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution places limits on the power of the police to make arrests, search people and their property, and seize objects and contraband (such as illegal drugs or weapons). These limits are the bedrock of search-and-seizure law.
The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable” searches and seizures by state or federal law enforcement authorities. However, the Fourth Amendment does not protect against searches initiated by nongovernmental people, such as employers, landlords, and private security personnel, unless the search is made at the behest of law enforcement.
If a defendant freely and voluntarily agrees to a search, the search is valid and whatever the officers find is admissible in evidence. No equivalent to Miranda warnings exists in the search and seizure area. Police officers do not have to warn people that they have a right to refuse consent to a search (U.S. v. Drayton, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2002; Ohio v. Robinette, U.S. Sup.
Police officers obtain search warrants by convincing a judge or magistrate that they have "probable cause" to believe that criminal activity is occurring at the place to be searched or that evidence of a crime may be found there. If the magistrate believes there is probable cause to conduct a search, he or she will issue a warrant. The suspect can later challenge the validity of the warrant before trial.
A search warrant is an order signed by a judge that authorizes police officers to search for particular objects or materials at a specified location and time. For example, a warrant may authorize the search of “the premises at 11359 Happy Glade Avenue between the hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” and direct the police to search for and seize “cash, betting slips, record books, and every other means used in connection with placing bets on horse races and other sporting events.”