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Under ideal circumstances an officer would never enter a premises or search a person or vehicle without a warrant. However, in reality this is impossible to always put into practice. Therefore, in what situations are warrantless searches allowed?
One of the first ways a warrantless search is granted is if an officer has already made a lawful arrest of the person in question. For example, if an officer saw a man in the act of stealing a wallet and arrested him, the officer could then lawfully search the man’s body for the wallet and any other evidence.
A second situation when a warrant is not required is under life saving circumstances or an exigent situation. If there is an immediate risk to the public or if there is a fear that evidence is going to be destroyed, an officer may forego a warrant in the interest of time. This also applies in the pursuit of a felon if the felon should run into a residence during the course of said pursuit.
Third, if a defendant gives consent, an officer may search a residence, vehicle or person without need of a warrant. However, care should be taken in this position as age must be considered. Children cannot give consent. Also, a person who may be impaired due to drugs or alcohol cannot legally give consent to a search. Along with voluntary consent, an object that is already in plain view that is believed to be evidence, may be obtained without the need of a warrant by the officer.
Fourth, any property found and turned over to police officers or any property abandoned, may be searched and kept until it can be returned to its rightful owner. Examples of this might include a jacket or a briefcase. This is known as the caretaker function.
Fifth, vehicles that are impounded can be searched and inventoried without need of obtaining a warrant. If incriminating evidence is found during the course of inventory and the officer has reason to believe it belongs to the owner of the vehicle an arrest can be made.
If a person is lawfully arrested while driving a car, then the officer may search the vehicle at that time. Or if an officer has reason to believe there are drugs, criminal evidence, or contraband in the vehicle, he may institute a search without a warrant. Again, this falls into a more case by case basis with a lot of room open to interpretation so care should be taken when exercising this action.
Finally, warrantless searches may also be carried out at the airport by security officers in regards to suitcases and people in order to ensure safety of all passengers. This includeds electronic devices like tablets and computers.
Knowing the rules regarding warrants is important information both for the general public and the law enforcement community. A better understanding of this law leads to better communication between all parties involved as well as less cases being dropped due to potential legal flaws within them.