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Do police always need a warrant?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects you from unlawful searches and seizures. Regardless of whether you remember this from school or from watching movies and television shows, you know you have this right.

However, what you may not realize is that "right" hinges on the word "unlawful." Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted that word in many cases. It endeavored to reach a balance between your rights and the reticence to unduly tie the hands of law enforcement officials as they carry out their lawful duties. It may surprise you to learn that police officers don't always need a warrant for an arrest, search or seizure.

When do police not need a warrant?

Under the following circumstances, police may not need a warrant:

  • After a lawful arrest, an officer may search you, your outer clothing and the area within your reach to protect him or herself from unseen weapons.
  • To arrest you for a felony in a public place, or in a private place if the officer chased you into a private area.
  • To arrest you for a misdemeanor committed in his or her presence.
  • To search the interior of your vehicle as part of a stop for a traffic violation, including the glove compartment. However, searching the trunk requires probable cause unless the police impounded your vehicle.
  • To conduct searches, arrests or seizures in emergencies that qualify as exigent circumstances.
  • To stop you and search your outer clothing for weapons if an officer suspects you of criminal activity.
  • At fixed roadside checkpoints for the limited purposes of searching for drunk drivers and immigrants who may not be legally in the country.

In addition, even if an officer's warrant has some defect, if the officer obtained it in good faith, the arrest, search or seizure may stand. The Supreme Court allows this exception so that officers attempting to act within the law cannot receive punishment for acting under what they believed was a valid warrant.

Even though these exceptions to the Fourth Amendment exist, that does not mean that they necessarily apply in your situation. You retain the right to challenge any arrest, search or seizure that occurred without a valid warrant. In order to do so, you may need to review the entirety of the circumstances, including the officer's intent and whether probable cause existed.

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