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Questioning warrantless searches in criminal defense

On Behalf of | Dec 13, 2023 | Criminal Defense

When the police arrest someone in Indiana, law enforcement conducts a search of the suspect and their property to check for evidence. While people might have a vague notion about when a warrant is needed, there are fundamentals about when and how searches can be conducted if the law enforcement officer did not obtain a warrant.

This might not necessarily violate the person’s rights. However, when confronted with drug charges, gun charges and other potentially serious allegations, it is imperative to scrutinize all the evidence including how it was gathered. If the officer should have gotten a warrant but failed to do so, this can help with the defense.

When does a law enforcement officer not need a warrant?

Just as an officer needs to get a warrant in some situations, there are exceptions to this requirement. First, if the item is in plain view, then the officer did not need a warrant. That includes using the senses to detect it. This goes beyond vision. If it is detected by smell, touch or hearing, then this is sufficient. For example, if the officer sees a gun while conducting a perfunctory investigation, then this would not be violating the person’s rights by further investigating because of it and making an arrest.

During a vehicle search, it is also unnecessary for the officer to secure a warrant. The vehicle must have been taken into custody or impounded under the law. After this is done, the vehicle will be inventoried. Anything found during that inventory can be used as evidence. It includes items that were in a container with contents that cannot be determined by looking at it externally.

Officers will not need a warrant during “exigent” circumstances. That means that the officer needed to act based on the urgency of the situation. If a person is trying to discard drugs or drug paraphernalia to avoid arrest on drug charges, then this could constitute exigent circumstances. A suspect who is fleeing and placing others at risk also falls into this category.

During a lawful arrest, the officer will search the suspect. Anything they find can be used as evidence and a warrant is not needed. If the arrest is made in an automobile, the officer can search the compartment the suspect had access to and it is to prevent them from grabbing a weapon or destroying evidence. In some instances, the officer was given permission by the person to conduct a search.

When the search comes about as part of a “stop and frisk” – also called a Terry Stop – there must have been some form of conduct that led to the suspicion that the person was committing a crime. The frisk can only be done as part of an initial investigation, is limited and is meant to search for weapons.

The officer might have needed a warrant for the search

People confronted with criminal accusations will understandably focus on the crime itself. Gun crimes, drug charges and other serious accusations that reach felony status can be worrisome as a conviction can result in extended jail time, fines and long-term consequences even after they have served their sentence.

Thinking about the evidence is a key part of a case and if it was accrued in violation of the person’s rights, it could be an effective avenue to use as part of a criminal defense strategy. This can be helpful with having some charges dropped or getting acquitted. Thinking about every part of the case is essential as there might be strategies available to reach a positive outcome.