Does a police officer who stops you for a broken taillight have a right to see what’s inside your trunk without a warrant?
What if you were pulled over in South Carolina for speeding? Can the officer force you to open your glove compartment to see what you have inside, even if he or she doesn’t have a warrant?
In both cases, the answer is, “it depends.” Warrantless searches are legal under certain circumstances, but police sometimes overstep their authority. Rewire explores issues around the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
The Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects everyone from illegal searches of their homes. That means you can keep items inside your home that you don’t want the police to know about. Authorities generally have no right to storm into your house without a warrant – but there are exceptions.
They don’t need a warrant if:
- You give them permission. Limited consent can be given, such as allowing them to look in your glove compartment but not the trunk of your car. You have a right to revoke consent with a clear statement.
- They see something in plain view. For example, they notice a bag of marijuana on a windowsill while walking past your home. Keep in mind, the officer cannot conduct a warrantless search if he or she used binoculars or climbed a ladder to get a better view.
- They smell an odor. An officer pulls you over and smells marijuana inside your car, for example.
An officer who reasonably suspects you committed a crime can search your body (known as a stop-and-frisk or a Terry stop). The officer can also detain and question you under the same circumstances.
Other examples where warrantless searches are legal include:
- An officer is in “hot pursuit” of a suspect.
- Officers see the theft of an item and the suspect gets home before being caught.
- “Exigent” circumstances, which means authorities have concerns that are more important than your privacy. For example, they can enter a home without a warrant if someone’s life is in danger or evidence is at risk of being destroyed or a suspect might escape.
Have my rights have been violated?
If an officer searched your home, car or body without a warrant and you were arrested, you may have grounds to argue your rights were violated. In fact, police sometimes conduct warrantless searches when they don’t have the right to do so. A tough prosecutor might argue the search without a warrant was done with probable cause, when it really wasn’t.
That’s why you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Attorney Matt Bodman thoroughly understands the complex issues surrounding the Fourth Amendment.
If you’ve been subject to a police search, make sure you have someone protecting your rights. Contact Attorney Bodman today for a consultation.