Generally, under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, law enforcement officers need a search warrant to enter or search a person’s home, possessions, or vehicle. This is because the United States Supreme Court, in Arizona v. Gant, ruled that warrantless searches are presumed to be unreasonable except for a few “well-delineated exceptions,” to the warrant requirement. Those exceptions include the search of a motor vehicle, the search of an individual incident to a lawful arrest, and what is called “exigent circumstances.”
The motor vehicle exception to the warrant requirement allows law enforcement officers to search a vehicle without a search warrant so long as the officer has probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be located within the vehicle. However, if the vehicle is parked on private property and is within the “curtilage,” then officers cannot search the vehicle without a search warrant. Curtilage is defined as the area immediately surrounding the home, such as a driveway, or other parking area around the home.
The search incident to a lawful arrest exception allows law enforcement officers to search a person who is lawfully arrested as well as the area that is within the arrested person’s immediate control. However, the police are only constitutionally allowed to search for the following things: (1) weapons that the arrested person might use to resist arrest or help with an escape, and (2) evidence which might be concealed or destroyed.
“Exigent circumstances” are situations where it would be too dangerous to require the police to get a warrant or the circumstances show that getting a warrant would allow for the imminent destruction of evidence. Therefore, if exigent circumstances are present, then the police may enter into a home without a warrant.
These three exceptions are not all of the exceptions to the general rule that law enforcement officers need a search warrant to enter and search a home, one’s possessions, or vehicle. This area of the law is difficult to navigate, so if you find yourself in a situation where you, your home, possessions, or vehicle was searched, consider talking to an experienced criminal defense attorney.