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Can police search my property without a warrant?

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens’ rights to unreasonable search and seizure of private property. In most cases, this means police must have a warrant signed by a judge to search you personally or your property, like your car or your home.

However, certain exceptions exist under the Fourth Amendment. This issue came to a head last week in a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled such exceptions do not apply to private homes.

Wait, there are exceptions to the Fourth Amendment?

Yes, and most people don’t realize it. Though the Fourth Amendment protects your right against unreasonable search and seizure, there are a few exceptions. They are:

  • The consent exception – If police ask to search you or your property and you say "yes," they don’t need a warrant.
  • The "plain view" exception – If criminal evidence is in “plain sight” when an officer stops you or your vehicle, he or she can seize the property without a warrant.
  • The arrest exception – If you’ve already been arrested, police can perform a search related to your arrest to collect any weapons or possible evidence.
  • The "exigent circumstances" exception – This is related to time. If police have reason to believe evidence would be destroyed or moved before they could get a warrant, they can perform a search without one.

Over the years, case law has determined where and how these exceptions work. In particular, cars and other motor vehicles may be searched without a warrant if police have probable cause. And this is what caused the issue at stake this past week.

What happened

In Virginia, police attempted to pull over a motorcyclist who had several traffic violations and who had possibly stolen the motorcycle. The motorcyclist evaded their capture, but was later arrested after police located the motorcycle using pictures posted on Instagram. To verify it was the same vehicle, an officer walked up the driveway the motorcycle was parked on, pulled off the tarp and checked the license plate – all without a warrant.

In an 8-1 ruling last Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the motor vehicle exemption does not apply to vehicles parked on private property. To properly search the vehicle, police would have either needed to gain their consent or obtain a warrant.

So, can police search your property without a warrant?

In some cases, yes, but as this case demonstrates, in most cases, no. As with most things legal, it depends on the circumstances. If you feel you’ve been subjected to an unreasonable search or seizure, it might be time to talk with a lawyer.

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