Say a police officer has pulled over your vehicle or knocked on the front door of your house. The officer asks to search inside. Do you have to comply?
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects you and your property from unreasonable searches and seizures. This often stops the police from searching your home or car without getting a search warrant first. But not always.
Generally, police can legally search your vehicle after pulling you over if they believe they have probable cause that you have contraband or evidence of a crime inside. However, “probable cause” means more than a hunch. They must have some evidence first, such as the smell of marijuana coming from inside your vehicle or observing you swerving in and out of your lane.
One important exception to the probable cause requirement is consent. If the officer asks to search and you give permission, they don’t need probable cause or a warrant. You have the right to decline this request and should always do so. However, if the officer orders you out of your vehicle and conducts a search anyway, do not resist. The time to deal with a potentially illegal vehicle search is later in court.
Courts have found that the Fourth Amendment right against warrantless searches is strongest at one’s home. Generally, law enforcement cannot search inside your home or the immediate vicinity without a warrant. But several exceptions exist. One exception is consent, as we discussed above.
Another is known as the “plain view doctrine.” If an officer can clearly see evidence of a crime on private property, such as drugs sitting on a table that is visible through an open window, they can seize that evidence without obtaining a search warrant first.
Challenging illegal police searches
The judge overseeing your case can potentially throw out any evidence seized during an illegal police search as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” or evidence resulting from violating your civil rights. You should discuss the details of how law enforcement searched your property with your criminal defense attorney to find out if this could happen in your case.