Warrantless Searches

National Police Training
May 30, 2012 — 1,740 views  
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The presumption of innocence and the illegality of warrantless searches are two caveats that Americans have believed in and relied on for centuries. The Fourth Amendment states that citizens are protected "against unreasonable searches and seizures." It goes on to say that search warrants won't be issued without probable cause and related affidavits that prove this. What many citizens don't know is that the legality of warrantless searches is changing. Today, warrantless searches can be completed on cell phones, on school grounds and in exigent circumstances. In fact, the majority of legal searches and seizures are completed without warrants.

In March 2012, the federal appeals court made an important ruling regarding the warrantless search of cell phones to determine the assigned phone numbers. In this case, law enforcement personnel in Indiana recovered several cell phones in a major drug bust. The officers went through the phones to determine their numbers before the evidence could be destroyed. A cell phone number is the first piece of information needed to legally secure a complete call record. The federal judge ruled that this search was minimally invasive and was constitutional. There are many other circumstances where Fourth Amendment protections don't apply.

If a person willingly consents to a search, they waive their privacy protections. A similar situation occurs when passengers consent to airport security screenings. Vehicles are frequently searched without warrants after traffic stops. In this scenario, probable cause could be something as simple as an odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. When probable cause is established onsite, the entire vehicle can be searched for evidence without a warrant. Following an arrest, officers search individuals for dangerous objects, drugs and paraphernalia. Although this is standard protocol, it is technically a warrantless search.

The plain view doctrine is another example of warrantless searches that are 100 percent legal. If a law enforcement officer sees a marijuana plant growing on a porch, he or she is legally allowed to seize any evidence that is in plain view. In schools and public areas, standards of probable cause are reduced. Schools use a lower standard of reasonable suspicion where any student suspected of violations can be searched without a warrant.

Standards for warrantless searches change as new technologies make it easier for clever criminals to hide their connections to illegal activities. Law enforcement agencies and courts are constantly responding to these changing conditions.

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