Can the Police Search Without a Warrant?

by Leigh A. Morgan
Police agents searching for drugs or guns in the car trunk while making a criminal investigation

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

On popular television shows, it's common to see police officers breaking down doors and searching people or property without getting a warrant.

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Although there are some situations that justify a warrantless search, the police usually need a warrant to search you, your house or your vehicle.

What Is a Warrant?

A search warrant is a document that gives the police permission to search a specific person, place or vehicle for evidence. To obtain a warrant, a police officer must submit an affidavit to a judge or magistrate. The affidavit explains why there is "good cause" for the court to authorize a police search. This is known as probable cause.

It's not enough for a police officer to have a hunch that someone committed a crime. They must have information that would lead a reasonable person to believe a search would yield some evidence of illegal activity. Here are some examples:

  • Someone calls the police to report a burglary in progress. The responding officer sees a suspect running away from the scene with a crowbar and a bag full of items in their hands. When the suspect gets into a vehicle, the officer is able to write down the license plate and trace it to the owner.
  • A confidential informant tells a police officer that a local gang member has a cache of automatic weapons in his storage unit.
  • The local post office manager contacts the police to report that a customer is using the United States Postal Service to ship illicit drugs. The police may be able to use this information to establish probable cause to search a recipient's home once the drugs arrive.

Why Do the Police Need a Warrant?

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizure. It also spells out the requirements for obtaining a warrant, such as probable cause and a detailed description of the person, place or property that will be searched. Applying for warrants helps law enforcement agencies avoid violating your constitutional rights.

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Can Police Search Your House Without a Warrant?

Law enforcement officials typically need a warrant to search your home, but there are some exceptions.

  • Exigent circumstances: Police officers are allowed to conduct warrantless searches when they reasonably believe someone inside a home is in danger.
  • Hot pursuit: A suspect may run into a dwelling while the police are pursuing them. If the suspect committed a felony, the pursuing officers may conduct a search of the building without getting a warrant first.
  • Lawful arrest: If police enter a home to make a lawful arrest, they can search the area around the person they're arresting.
  • Consent: Police don't need a warrant if you give them permission to search your home.
  • Plain sight: If the police see evidence out in the open, they can conduct a warrantless search. For example, if a police officer responds to a noise complaint and sees illicit drugs sitting out on a table, they can conduct a search without a warrant. In this case, the drugs are in plain sight.

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Can Police Search Your Car Without a Warrant?

Under the Fourth Amendment, police generally need a warrant to search your vehicle. There are two major exceptions. First, no warrant is needed if you give permission for a search. The second exception is if the officer has probable cause that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence.

For example, if you live in a state where marijuana usage is still against the law, an officer may conduct a warrantless vehicle search if they pull you over for speeding and notice a strong marijuana odor coming from the vehicle.

Can Police Search Your Person Without a Warrant?

Police officers are allowed to conduct a warrantless search of your person under the following circumstances:

  • They reasonably believe you'll destroy evidence or harm someone if they wait to obtain a warrant from a judge or magistrate.
  • They have probable cause to arrest you.
  • You give your permission for a search.

What Situations Justify a Warrantless Search?

As described above, these are the general situations that justify a warrantless police search:

  • Exigent circumstances
  • Probable cause for arrest
  • Voluntary consent
  • Hot pursuit
  • Evidence or contraband in plain sight

The U.S. Constitution provides protections against unreasonable searches, but many states have laws that provide additional protections. Additionally, whether police are legally allowed to conduct a warrantless search may depend on subtle facts or circumstances in a situation. If you're concerned about a recent search or have general questions about warrantless searches, contact a licensed attorney in your area.

Can You Decline to Let Police Search If They Don't Have a Warrant?

You have the right to refuse a search if the police don't have a warrant. Police may seek consent to search to avoid getting a warrant or because they don't have grounds to obtain one. However, if officers are relying on one of the above exceptions, they may do the search, even if you don't consent to it. 

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