United States citizens receive protection from illegal searches and seizures from the Fourth Amendment in the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment states police cannot search a person’s home, assets or vehicle without having a warrant or probable cause.
Despite this protection, every year police skirt around the law and conduct illegal searches and seizures. People need to be aware of their rights so they know when police find something illegally.
When can police search the premises without a warrant?
With an official warrant issued by a judge, police can peruse through an entire property. In any other circumstance, the officer will need to make it clear there was probable cause to search an area for the well-being of the general public. For example, if the police pull a car over and an officer smells marijuana in the car, then he may ask to see if the driver has a doctor’s prescription. If the driver does not have such a prescription, then the officer could search the vehicle without a warrant because there is sufficient evidence the driver has an illegal substance in the car.
What is “plain view?”
Police officers occasionally justify searching an area without a warrant due to evidence being in plain view. This occurs when someone can see the evidence without having to alter anything. For instance, an officer could not ask a driver to move a piece of clothing inside a car so that he can get a better view.
Additionally, the officer needs to be able to reasonably assume the item in plain view is contraband. As an example, if an officer sees a T-shirt for the band Sublime in a car, then he could not use that to search the vehicle for the presence of marijuana. However, if the officer saw a bag of oregano and mistook it for marijuana, then the search and seizure would have a better chance of holding up in court because there was more probable cause.