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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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When is a Search Warrant Not Necessary?

Note to teachers: We recommend that you invite a community resource person, such as a judge, prosecutor, or criminal defense lawyer to assist in going over the scenarios, as many of them are tricky and the answers can depend upon the nuances of state law. For details about using a community resource person, click here.

Introduction

Most Americans understand that police officers sometimes need a warrant to search for information believed to be related to criminal activity. They may also be aware that, according to the exclusionary rule, evidence gained in an illegal search cannot be used to convict someone of a crime. However, in many circumstances the police do not need a warrant for a search, or for the evidence gained from a search, to be legal and used in court.

In each of the situations below, a police officer does not need a search warrant to conduct a search.

  • If an individual voluntarily consents (agrees to) a search, no warrant is needed. The key question in this kind of search is what counts as a voluntary agreement? In order for a consent search to be legal, the individual must be in control of the area to be searched and cannot have been pressured or tricked into agreeing to the search.
  • A police officer that spots something in plain view does not need a search warrant to seize the object. In order for a plain view search to be legal, the officer must be in a place he has the right to be in and the object he seizes must be plainly visible in this location.
  • If a suspect has been legally arrested, the police may search the defendant and the area within the defendant's immediate control. In a search incident to arrest no warrant is necessary as long as a spatial relationship exists between the defendant and the object.
  • Following an arrest, the police may make a protective sweep search if they reasonably believe that a dangerous accomplice may be hiding in an area near where the defendant was arrested. To do so, police are allowed to walk through a residence and complete a "cursory visual inspection" without a warrant. If evidence of or related to a criminal activity is in plain view during the search, the evidence may be legally seized.
  • If the police stop a car based on probable cause, they can search for objects related to the reason for the stop without obtaining a warrant. During a car search, the police are also allowed to frisk the subject for weapons, even without a warrant if they have reasonable suspicion that the suspects may be involved in illegal activities.
Directions

You will be given an index card with an "L" on one side and an "I" on the other. The "L" stands for LEGAL. The "I" stands for ILLEGAL. Your teacher will read aloud a scenario in which the police did not have a search warrant. You will have 10 seconds to decide, based on the information above, whether the search/seizure was legal or illegal. When the teacher says "go", raise your index card, displaying the "L" if you think the search was legal or the "I" if you think the search was illegal. Be prepared to explain and defend your answer.

Scenarios
  1. At the local shopping mall, an undercover detective notices a group of teenagers shopping together. Following them, he observes no illegal behavior. However, once they exit the mall he stops them and orders them to turn over their purses, wallets, and jackets. Is this search legal or illegal? If it is legal, underline the key words from the scenario that make it legal.  If it is illegal, explain why.
  2. Using a valid arrest warrant, police arrest a woman for running a drug ring out of her house. Believing that her boss, one of the biggest drug dealers in the country, may be hiding inside the house, they walk through the house looking for him. Is this search legal or illegal? If it is legal, underline the key words from the scenario that make it legal.  If it is illegal, explain why.
  3. Officer Jones is trying to find a convict who escaped from a nearby jail. Going door-to-door in the neighborhood surrounding the jail, he asks permission to enter each house and search it. The Nguyen's allow him to enter their house. Once in the house, the officer sees and seizes an unregistered firearm that is on a bookshelf. Is this search legal or illegal? If it is legal, underline the key words from the scenario that make it legal.  If it is illegal, explain why.
  4. In a neighborhood well known for producing methamphetamines, the police have a warrant to search the basement of one home to find a production lab. Finding nothing in the basement, they perform a protective sweep search on the rest of the house. Is this search legal or illegal? If it is legal, underline the key words from the scenario that make it legal.  If it is illegal, explain why.
  5. While chaperoning a high-school football game, police in Mississippi see a gun on the front seat of a parked car. Opening the car door, they discover not only the gun but also bullets and a knife. Is this search legal or illegal? If it is legal, underline the key words from the scenario that make it legal.  If it is illegal, explain why.
  6. Jody and Chandra attend a keg party where all of those drinking were under age. The police break up the party without arresting anyone. They seize Jody's purse. Inside, they find marijuana and arrest Jody for possession. Is this search legal or illegal? If it is legal, underline the key words from the scenario that make it legal.  If it is illegal, explain why.
  7. Late for work, Diego was driving five miles over the speed limit when pulled over by the police. Ordering Diego out of the car, the police proceed to frisk him and find a small weapon in his jacket pocket. Is this search legal or illegal? If it is legal, underline the key words from the scenario that make it legal.  If it is illegal, explain why.
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