Legal Blog

Do Police Need a Warrant to Search Private Property?

19 May 2023 | Criminal Defense,  

Attorney Sean Hessler

Written by
Sean Hessler

19 May 2023

Criminal Defense,  

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With the protections the Fourth Amendment provides, we expect a degree of security against unannounced searches. Without a search warrant, you might not expect law enforcement to enter your home or rummage through your car. However, there could be times police breach that security.

Are there times that are allowed? What happens to your case if the police search your property without a warrant? Learn more about police activity, private property, and search warrants.

When Do Officers Need a Search Warrant?

In Indiana, private property is anything that the government does not own. Part of that property can include the “curtilage,” the surrounding area connected to the home. That means the home’s yard, sidewalks, or porch can be private property. Vehicles are also considered private property.

When police suspect illicit activity on private property, they must get a search warrant to conduct a “government search.” Law enforcement agents have not violated the Fourth Amendment if they are conducting the search within the established parameters set by the search warrant.

If they gather evidence that isn’t included in the search warrant, it may be considered “fruit of the poisonous tree” and inadmissible. For instance, if an officer notices wrongdoing in an area where a citizen expects privacy, an area normally prohibited to public access such as a backyard or a purse, and the area isn’t included in the search warrant, officers might violate the Fourth Amendment if they access that area.

But what happens when there isn’t a search warrant? Can officers still find admissible evidence?

When Can Officers Search Without a Warrant?

Police officers are encouraged to get a search warrant whenever possible to secure the “chain of evidence.” They’re working with the state to prove the defendant has committed some wrongdoing. A search warrant shows the court there was probable cause to investigate in the first place.

However, there can be circumstances when the police don’t have time to get a warrant, and they can legally conduct a search, like:

  • In plain view: if an officer sees something illegal without intruding on private property, they are allowed to search the premises without a warrant. That means if they see, smell, touch, or hear something happening that they believe is illicit, they can collect evidence. For instance, if they smell marijuana emanating from a car, they might search it. These suspicions have to be reasonably justified.

  • Vehicle inventory: if a vehicle is impounded, an officer will search it and take an inventory of its contents. They will be able to look through the car in its entirety, including any locked areas or containers, as long as they don’t damage them.

  • Vehicle exception: officers can search a vehicle during a traffic stop if they have reasonable belief there is contraband inside the car. The search should happen right where the stop occurred, and only in the areas the contraband is suspected to be, like the trunk, glovebox, or containers in the vehicle.

  • Exigent circumstances: if an officer feels they must act right away, they can be permitted to collect evidence or make an arrest. This could include if an officer feels endangered, there’s a danger to the public, evidence could be destroyed, or they have to pursue a suspect.

  • Search connected to an arrest: during an arrest, officers are permitted to search the area around the arrestee. This includes anything in their vicinity that might contain a hidden weapon or evidence of illegal activity. Officers can sweep a residence if they’re making an arrest in the home, or they can check the passenger compartment of a car when the driver is “unsecured.”

  • Consent search: if a suspect gives consent to a search and officers can prove the decision was voluntary and consent was freely given, officers can conduct a search. If the suspect is in custody, officers must explain they have a right to counsel before the search begins.

  • Stop and frisk searches: this search is related to exigent situations. If the officer believes a suspect is acting in a suspicious manner, or they believe they’re illegally armed, an officer can stop them. They can conduct a brief investigation around the stop, ask for the suspect’s identification, and frisk them for weapons.

Can Officers Use Evidence Found in a Warrantless Search?

When officers can prove they had a reasonable belief to conduct a warrantless search, they may be able to use the evidence they found in a case against a defendant. It presents the same as evidence collected through a search warrant. The prosecution will use it to try and prove the defendant’s guilt. Their job is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they found illegal activity or contraband.

What Happens if an Officer Violates My Fourth Amendment?

Although officers can use the evidence found in some warrantless searches, they cannot use evidence gathered illegally. For instance, if you were stopped while driving, taken out of the car, and secured, an officer can’t search the trunk at the scene. They might argue they’re searching for a weapon, but because you don’t pose a threat, they don’t have reasonable cause to search your vehicle. Any contraband they find is deemed “fruit of the poisonous tree.” It’s inadmissible in court.

Even if there are circumstances when an officer thinks they have cause to search your property, they have to document and examine the situation. If they’re wrong, but continue the search anyway, you can argue they violated your rights, and push for a dismissal or reduction of charges. If the prosecution’s case rests on the evidence collected under false pretenses, the case may be dismissed.

Should I Hire a Criminal Defense Attorney?

Criminal charges can impact your life even before the case goes to trial or you are convicted. You should strongly consider hiring an attorney: even the smallest charges can have wide-ranging effects on your life. A seasoned criminal defense attorney will know to review your case for any possible options to fight it.

Your attorney can review the prosecution’s evidence during the discovery phase to determine if the evidence was gathered lawfully. Even though your attorney can’t dismiss your case outright, they might motion to suppress the evidence, meaning the prosecution can’t show it to the jury. That makes a conviction that much harder.

Call An Indianapolis Criminal Defense Attorney Now

If you’re facing criminal charges and you believe your Fourth Amendment rights were violated, you should call Hessler Law, PC. Attorney Sean Hessler understands that illegal search and seizures have caused false convictions to many people. He’s ready to look at your case and work on a defense. He has helped clients fight their criminal charges when the evidence presented was collected under false pretenses.

Call (317) 886-8800 or use the online form to schedule your free initial consultation. All consultations are confidential.