During colonial times, British soldiers often used blank search warrants to rummage through personal property. The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ended this practice. This provision bans unreasonable seizures unless peace officers have a warrant supported by an affidavit that contains probable cause.

Over the years, the Supreme Court has fleshed out the “unreasonableness” portion of the Fourth Amendment. Today, warrantless searches are legal if they fit under a limited search warrant exception. The most common exceptions are examined below.

The state has the burden of proof to show that the search warrant exception applied. So, if an Oakwood criminal defense lawyer casts enough doubt on the state’s evidence, the judge might rule the seized evidence is inadmissible. If that happens, the prosecutor’s case usually collapses like a house of cards.

Exigent Circumstances

It is normally illegal for authorities to enter a dwelling or place of business without a warrant. Police officers typically use this doctrine to bypass this prohibition.

If officers believe someone is in danger inside a building, they may enter without a warrant and perform a safety sweep. As they sweep through the building, they may seize any contraband they see in plain view. More on the plain view doctrine below.

Security sweeps are limited. As the name implies, officers may move rather quickly through the area. They cannot look into every nook and cranny. They certainly cannot open locked containers, like briefcases. Additionally, if officers believe there is a gas leak in the house, they cannot go through a detached garage or storage locker.

Automobile Exception

This doctrine allows officers to search for evidence in a car, truck, boat, airplane, or any other motor vehicle, provided officers have probable cause. If the warrant requirement applied in these situations, the defendant could literally fly away with the evidence before the judge signed a warrant.

This exception is also limited. Officers can only look in reasonable places. For example, if officers suspect the defendant is hiding illegal weapons in a car, they cannot look under the hood.


Owners or apparent owners can consent to property searches. An apparent owner is a person like a roommate whose name is not on the lease. The property could be anything, from a dwelling to a car to a backpack.

Consent is a voluntary, affirmative act. If the consent is coerced, perhaps because officers threatened to get a warrant, the consent is usually illegal. Furthermore, opening a door or window is not consent. At best, such actions are assent.

Plain View

This doctrine frequently comes up in traffic stops. If officers see drugs, weapons, or other contraband in plain view, they do not need a warrant to seize it. 

Officers must be legally in that place at that time. So, if the stop was illegal, so is the plain view seizure. Additionally, officers cannot use viewing aids, like telescopes, to bring items into plain view. Partial plain view seizures, like a gun barrel protruding from under a seat, are in a grey area.

Stop and Frisk

If officers have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, they may stop a suspect and pat the suspect down for weapons. During this search, they may seize any contraband they feel. Reasonable suspicion is basically an evidence-based hunch.

Partner with a Diligent Lawyer

Officers do not always need warrants to enter and search property. For a free consultation with an experienced Oakwood criminal defense lawyer, contact the Comunale Law Office. Convenient payment plans are available.