The concept of when police can and cannot legally search a home and seize property originated in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which provides protection from “unreasonable” searches and seizures with a warrant that must be based on “probable cause.”
Court rulings over the years have expanded Fourth Amendment protections to address exceptions to the requirement of a warrant and to searches of vehicles and of people themselves. As a result, there are times when homeowners are compelled to allow law enforcement to conduct a search of their homes, even those these dwellings are generally protected by an expectation of privacy.
When do you have to let law enforcement in?
Typically, if police show up at your door and say they want to search your home, they need a warrant signed by a judge that describes the location(s) they can search and the property they can seize, if found. These can be relatively broad or highly specific. You generally don’t have to let them enter without a warrant. If they have a warrant, it’s important to read it – starting with the address, to make sure they’re in the right place.
Yet, police can enter a premises without a warrant under “exigent circumstances.” Typically, this involves a reasonable belief that either someone is in immediate danger or evidence is currently being destroyed. This can be a tricky exception, and it can be misused. As a result, those who have had their homes searched without consent or a warrant can generally benefit from seeking legal guidance to better understand their rights and options.
The plain view exception
Another exception is known as “plain view.” Assuming that police have entered your home legally (with a warrant, consent or due to exigent circumstances), they can seize items they believe to be evidence of a crime if they’re in plain view. This means they can see them without opening drawers, cabinets or engaging in a search. If someone has a bag of what appears to be cocaine laying on an entryway table, for example, that would be in plain view.
This is a lot to remember at what’s likely a highly stressful, chaotic time. If you’re facing charges after what you believe was an illegal search and/or seizure, it’s crucial to seek experienced legal guidance to determine whether your rights were violated. Evidence obtained illegally can be inadmissible in court – potentially leaving prosecutors with little or no case as a result.