Searches and Seizures FAQ


Your right to privacy when the police come knocking, pull you over, or stop you on the street.

What's Below:

When is a police investigation considered a search?

How private is your property?

What is a search warrant?

What does it take to get a search warrant?

What are the police allowed to do after they obtain a search warrant?

Do the police always need a warrant to conduct a search?

Can my roommate-or my landlord-give the police permission to search my apartment?

If a police officer pulls me over, can she frisk me or search my car?

If my car is towed and impounded, can the police search it?

When is a police investigation considered a search?

A police investigation is not a search unless it intrudes on a person's privacy. In other words, if a person did not have a "legitimate expectation of privacy" in the place or thing searched, no "search" has occurred.

Courts ask two questions to determine whether a person had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the place or things searched:

  • Did the person expect some degree of privacy?
  • Is the person's expectation reasonable-that is, one that society is willing to recognize?

For example, a person who uses a public restroom expects that no one will spy on her, and most people-including judges and juries-would consider that expectation to be reasonable. Therefore, if the police install a hidden video camera in a public restroom, the action is considered a search and must meet the Fourth Amendment's requirement of reasonableness.

On the other hand, if the police glance into a car and see a weapon on the front seat, it is not a search because it is unlikely that a person would think that the front seat of a car is a private place. And even if he did, society is not generally willing to extend the protections of privacy to the front seat of an automobile.

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How private is your property?

Generally, if the police are able to view contraband or evidence on your property without actually entering it, they have not conducted a search. In other words, you cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy in an area that can legitimately be seen from outside your property. This means that the police can use what they have seen as the basis for getting a warrant to come in and take a closer look. Or, if the situation calls for prompt action (the need to stop a drug deal, for instance), they may enter without a warrant.

Law enforcement officers are allowed to take aerial photographs or come close enough to overhear your conversations-these actions are not considered searches. On the other hand, without a warrant or an exception to the rule requiring a warrant, officers are probably not allowed to use sophisticated equipment to discover what is on your property or to eavesdrop on your conversations. In general, if the investigation method is highly artificial and high-tech, it's likely to be considered a search. Where the line is drawn, however, is not clear or consistent from state to state.

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What is a search warrant?

A search warrant is a kind of permission slip, signed by a judge, that allows the police to enter private property to look for particular items. It is addressed to the owner of the property, and tells the owner that a judge has decided that it is reasonably likely that certain contraband, or evidence of criminal activities, will be found in specified locations on the property.

As a general rule, the police are supposed to apply for a warrant before conducting a search of private property; any search that is conducted without a warrant is presumed to be unreasonable. This means that the police officers will later have to justify the search-and why a warrant wasn't obtained first-if the defendant challenges it in court.

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What does it take to get a search warrant?

A judge will issue a search warrant after the police have convinced her that:

  • it is more likely than not that a crime has taken place, and
  • items connected to the crime are likely be found in a specified location on the property.

To convince the judge of these facts, the police tell the judge what they know about the situation. Usually, the information given to the judge is based either on the officers' own observations or on the second-hand observations of an informant.The police are limited in their ability to use secondhand information. As a general rule, the information must be reliable given the circumstances. Generally, reliable information is corroborated by police observation. For example, a citizen's tip that someone regularly delivers drugs to a certain location would be corroborated if an officer observes the person's routine. But corroboration is not necessary in every case. Sometimes a judge will issue a warrant if the source of the information is known to the police and has provided trustworthy information in the past.

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What are the police allowed to do after they obtain a search warrant?

Once the police have a search warrant, they are entitled to enter the designated property to search for the items listed on the warrant. Legally, the search is supposed to be confined to the specific areas described in the warrant. For example, if the search warrant includes only the living room, the search should not extend into the kitchen, bathroom or bedroom. But there are exceptions to this limitation which are frequently used to justify broader searches. For example, the police may search beyond the terms of the warrant in order to:

  • ensure their safety and the safety of others
  • prevent the destruction of evidence
  • discover more about possible evidence or contraband that is in plain view elsewhere on the property, or
  • hunt for evidence or contraband that, as a result of their initial search, they believe exists in another location on the property.

For instance, although a warrant might be issued for the search of a house, the sound of a shotgun being loaded in the backyard would justify expanding the search to the yard in order to protect the officers; similarly, a search limited to the ground floor might legitimately expand to the upstairs if the police, searching for illegal drugs, hear toilets being flushed above. And the police can always seize evidence or illegal items if they are in plain view or are discovered while the officers are searching for the items listed in the warrant.

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Do the police always need a warrant to conduct a search?

No. In many situations, police may legally conduct a search without first obtaining a warrant.

  • Consent searches. If the police ask your permission to search your home, purse, briefcase or other property, and you agree, the search is considered consensual, and they don't need a warrant. The police typically obtain a person's consent by threatening to detain her while they obtain the warrant.
  • Searches that accompany an arrest. When a person is placed under arrest, the police may search the person and the immediate surroundings for weapons that might be used to harm the officer. If the person is taken to jail, the police may search to make sure that weapons or contraband are not brought into the jail. (This is called an inventory search.) Inventory searches also frequently involve a search of the arrested person's car (if it is being held by the police) and personal effects on the theory that the police need a precise record of the person's property to avoid claims of theft.
  • Searches necessary to protect the safety of the public. The police don't need a warrant if they have a reasonable fear that their safety, or that of the public, is in imminent danger. For example, an officer who suspected a bomb-making operation while walking his beat might be justified in entering immediately and seizing the ingredients. And in the famous O.J. Simpson case, the police justified their entry onto O.J. Simpson's property on the grounds that they feared for the safety of other family members.
  • Searches necessary to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence. A police officer does not need to obtain a warrant if she has observed illegal items (such as weapons or contraband) and believes that the items will disappear unless the officer takes prompt action. This exception arises most frequently when the police spot contraband or weapons in a car. Because cars are moved so frequently, the officer is justified in searching the entire vehicle, including the trunk, without obtaining a warrant. On the other hand, if the police learn about a marijuana-growing operation from a neighbor, they usually would need a warrant, as it is unlikely that the growing plants and other evidence of the operation will disappear quickly enough to justify a warrantless search.
  • "Hot pursuit" searches. Police may enter private dwellings to search for criminals who are fleeing the scene of a crime.

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Can my roommate-or my landlord-give the police permission to search my apartment?

The police may search your apartment if the person in charge of the premises gives permission. If you and your roommate share common areas (such as the kitchen and living room), your roommate can authorize a search of those areas. But your roommate cannot give permission to search your separate bedroom.

Similarly, your landlord cannot give permission to search your apartment. Although the landlord owns the property, your monthly check guarantees your privacy at home. This is true even if you are behind in your rent or your landlord has sued to evict you. Until the landlord has a court order that permits him to enter and retake the premises, he cannot enter without your permission. (But keep in mind that many states allow a landlord to enter for inspections, which usually require advance notice of a day or two.) If the police can point to circumstances that would justify immediate entry, however -- such as the sound of a ferocious fight or the smell of burning marijuana -- they may enter without permission from anyone.

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If a police officer pulls me over, can she frisk me or search my car?

Yes, if the officer has a reasonable suspicion you are armed and dangerous, she can frisk (pat down) you when you are pulled over for a traffic violation. Similarly, if the officer reasonably suspects that you are involved in criminal activity she can also perform a pat down. Assuming the police have probable cause -- a reasonable basis or justification to believe that you or your passengers are involved in criminal activity -- they can search your car and objects belonging to passengers.

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If my car is towed and impounded, can the police search it?

Yes. If your car is impounded, the police are allowed to conduct a thorough search of it, including its trunk and any closed containers that they find inside. This is true even if your car was towed after you parked it illegally or if the police recover your car after it is stolen.

The police are required, however, to follow fair and standardized procedures when they search your car and may not stop you and impound your car simply to perform a search.

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