The United States Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights require the police to obtain warrants to search non-public areas. Government searches without warrants are presumed to be unreasonable. It would make sense to think, therefore, that most of the time when the police search a private location and seize private property, they have already gone to court and obtained a search warrant. However, the vast majority of police searches in the United States are performed without warrants. How do Massachusetts police officers justify these searches when the federal and state constitutions unambiguously state that obtaining a warrant is a prerequisite to a search? Because there are almost limitless exceptions to the warrant requirement.
Most of the time when a defendant moves to suppress evidence in court, the evidence was recovered during a warrantless search. The attorneys are usually litigating whether an exception to the warrant requirement authorized the police to search without a warrant. Some of the most common exceptions to the warrant requirement are the following.
Plain View Doctrine – Police are allowed to seize property, even if it is in a private location, if it is identifiable as contraband and is in “plain view,” which means police officers could see the contraband from an area where they were entitled to be.
Consent – A police officer can always ask an individual’s permission to search a private location without a warrant. If the person consents to the search, the police are not obligated to also obtain a warrant.
Inventory – If police officers take custody of a motor vehicle, they are generally allowed to search it without a warrant to inventory the property contained therein.
Incident to Arrest – When police officers arrest a suspect, they are allowed to search the area immediately surrounding the suspect to ensure: (1) there is not a weapon nearby that the suspect could grab; and (2) there is no evidence the defendant could destroy.
Exigency – Fast-moving events that pose a danger to the community sometimes constitute an emergency that allows police officers to search a location without a warrant.
Automobile Exception – Searches in cars have their own set of rules that often do not require warrants to be obtained in advance of the search.
Caretaking and Emergency Aid – If police officers enter a private area not to search for contraband, but rather to ensure nobody is in need of assistance, a warrant is not required.
Inevitable Discovery – The inevitable discovery exception to the warrant requirement does not justify a warrantless search, but it permits illegally-obtained evidence to be admitted at trial if a judge concludes the evidence would have inevitably been discovered by the police notwithstanding the illegal government conduct.
Defendants who are inexperienced in the criminal justice system are often dumbfounded that the absence of a warrant does not automatically invalidate the search of a private location and the seizure of private property. A prosecutor will always find a way to argue the search was valid pursuant to one of the warrant exceptions. It is crucial for defendants to hire experienced criminal defense attorneys to challenge these warrantless searches in court.