Even if you’re not doing anything illegal, dealing with the police can be intimidating. There is an inherent power imbalance, and you may not know all your rights. During these encounters, we hope that police are honest and follow the rules, but that’s not always the case.

If your interaction with police escalates to the point where you’re searched, knowing what your rights are becomes even more complicated. If police find evidence of a crime and arrest you during a search conducted illegally, you may have ground to have the case thrown out.

What is legal without a warrant?

For police to legally conduct a search, generally they first need probable cause and a search warrant. As outlined in the Fourth Amendment, probable cause is the requirement that must be met before police make an arrest or search you.

But there are instances where it is legal for police to search you without a warrant. They include the following:

  • In plain view: If evidence or contraband is in plain view of the police officer in a place where he or she is authorized to be
  • Consent: If you consent to the search – for example, allowing the police to come into your home – there is no warrant needed.
  • After an arrest: After an arrest, police can search you and your immediate vicinity for weapons or other dangerous items.
  • Emergency: If taking the time to get a warrant would jeopardize people’s safety or lead to the destruction of critical evidence, police may conduct a search.

What is illegal?

Aside from the exceptions above, police usually need a warrant to search you, your property, your home or your vehicle. Police may not stop and frisk you unless they have reasonable suspicion that you’re armed and dangerous.

Do I need a lawyer?

If charged with a crime, it is usually a good idea to get a lawyer. But this is especially true if you believe there was an illegal search. Illegally obtained evidence may be inadmissible in court. A defense attorney can advocate for your constitutional rights and show you the best path forward.