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A Police Search Primer

Posted on in Vehicle Searches

police search primer, McHenry County criminal defense attorneyThe police in America often appear to wield an unchallengeable authority. However, the law in fact places numerous constraints on the police to protect the rights of citizens accused of crimes. One of the most important of these constraints comes from the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from “unreasonable” searches by police. This means that there are limits to the ability of the police to look through a person's things. The full extent of the rules on when police may search are complex, but a short primer can help people more fully exercise their rights. The general rule is that police must have a warrant to perform a search, but there are important exceptions to this rule.

The Need for Warrants

The key point of the Fourth Amendment is that police must have a warrant to in order to perform a search. A warrant is a legal document provided by a judge that gives the police a right to enter a specific place in order to look for a specific item. In order to get a warrant, the police must demonstrate that there is “probable cause” to believe that a search will turn up evidence of a crime. If the officers can convince a judge of that, then they will receive a warrant, and they can search the premises.

However, a warrant does not give the police a complete right to search anywhere. Instead, a search must be limited to a specific area and for specific goods. For instance, if the police were searching for a stolen flatscreen television, they would not be allowed to open kitchen drawers in a home during a search because a television could not possibly fit in a drawer.

Exceptions to the Warrant Rule

While the general rule is that police need a warrant, there are a variety of important exceptions. One of the biggest exceptions is that police do not need a warrant to search a vehicle. Instead, they must simply have probable cause to search it because it would be impractical to wait for a warrant during a traffic stop. However, if the police search a car without probable cause, the search can be contested during the case, and the evidence may be thrown out.

Another common exception to the need for warrants are searches that take place after a person has been arrested. The police are allowed to search a person after an arrest for their own safety. They look for weapons that could endanger them, but if they find other things, such as drugs, that evidence is still valid.


The idea of consent is also important regarding when police are allowed to perform searches. Consent eliminates the need for a warrant. This is technically just an exception to the warrant rule, but it is important enough to single out. If the police ask for permission to perform a search and the person gives it, then the Fourth Amendment provides no protection.

The legal system provides a variety of protections for people accused of a criminal offense. If you have been charged with a crime, contact a McHenry County criminal defense attorney today.

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