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Both the U.S. and South Carolina Constitutions protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures, requiring the police to have a search warrant reviewed and signed by a judge to comply with these protections in many situations. Be that as it may, the police can occasionally conduct a search without a warrant. 

You are only protected from unreasonable searches in places where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and the restriction on warrantless searches includes some important exceptions in emergency circumstances.

What can police search without a warrant?

To understand the scope of a police officer’s authority to conduct warrantless searches, you must first fully comprehend what the law stands to protect. 

The U.S. Constitution protects the right to be secure in your “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Courts have abstracted these four examples to cover any location where you reasonably expect privacy. That said, a search warrant allows the police to search such locations. 

The police can obtain a search warrant that includes the following:

  • A probable cause affidavit explaining the reason for the search
  • A list of the places to search and the items to seize
  • The express review and approval of a judge

However, courts have approved several exceptions to these requirements. These exceptions are typically based on urgent events that interfere with a police officer’s ability to get a search warrant. Thus, police officers can use exigent circumstances to justify a search while in hot pursuit of a suspect.

Examples of Valid Warrantless Searches

After an arrest, your lawyer will look into how the police obtained the evidence of your alleged offense. If the police violate the law, prosecutors will be blocked from using their collected evidence against you.

Judges analyze searches using the abovementioned principles, but what can police search without a warrant? Some places include the following:

Public Locations

As you have no expectation of privacy in public locations, the police can usually search the following locations without a warrant:

  • Trash cans
  • Public social media posts
  • Shared workstations
  • Financial records held by a bank
  • Conversations in public spaces
  • Hotel rooms

Prosecutors can use evidence gathered from these sources in any way against you.

Private Locations With Your Consent

Once you consent to a search, you forfeit your expectation of privacy. The police can search anywhere under your control, such as your car or home, with your consent. 

They can also search anywhere under someone else’s control with their consent, even if the search affects you. A vehicle driver, therefore, can allow a search of the passenger seat and door where you were sitting, even if you object.

Private Locations Under Exigent Circumstances

Exigent circumstances provide narrow exceptions to the requirement for a warrant and are meant to be tailored to the location of the search.

When can police search your car without a warrant?

The most common exigent circumstance occurs when the police have probable cause to believe your car contains evidence of a crime. Their probable cause can come from any of the following means:

  • Smells emanating from your car
  • Evidence in plain sight
  • A hit from a drug-sniffing dog

Should these qualities be apparent, officers can enter your vehicle and search without a warrant.

When can police search your house without a warrant?

Another common exigent circumstance occurs when the police are in “hot pursuit” of a potential suspect. They can enter a home without a warrant while chasing a suspect, and a judge may allow the police to use any evidence spotted during the pursuit. Once the pursuit ends, a warrant is needed to return and search the residence.

When can police search your phone without a warrant?

Concerning phone searches, the most common exigent circumstance applies when the police search an abandoned phone; that is, one that is not stolen or lost. If, for example, someone throws their phone into a lake to conceal evidence, the police can retrieve and search it.

Challenging a Search

When an unreasonable search violates your right to a fair investigation, contact the Law Office of Mo Abusaft, a criminal defense firm in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for help.