When Do Police Need Search Warrants?

This question has plagued American lawmakers since before America existed. Beginning in the colony of Massachusetts in 1751, authorities began issuing writs of assistance. These general warrants authorized the search of a particular premise without specifying the nature of the criminal activity. They basically had no expiration date and were even transferrable. Their use died out by the late 1760s after a howl of protests from colonists that the writs violated their rights as British subjects.

In response to this outrage, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lists some requirements for search warrants, such as the need for probable cause in issuance. But it would be more than a century later before modern search warrant law began to evolve.

The Exclusionary Rule

Mapp v. Ohio, a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court case, introduced the concept that prosecutors could not use evidence not obtained in accordance with lawful procedures at the defendant’s trial. Roughly four years earlier, police officers in Cleveland demanded to search Ms. Mapp’s home to look for evidence of a prior bombing. She refused to admit them since they did not have a warrant. When they returned with the warrant a few hours later, they forced the door down when Ms. Mapp did not immediately respond. She asked to see the warrant, snatched it away from the presenting officer, and shoved it down her dress. According to the record, the enraged officers “’grabbed’ her, ‘twisted [her] hand,’ and she ‘yelled [and] pleaded with him’ because ‘it was hurting.’” The officers seized some pornographic writings that were illegal to possess in Ohio at the time; the officers’ warrant was never seen again.

Writing for the majority, Justice Tom Clark declared that the search was illegal, and the proper remedy was “the same sanction of exclusion as is used against the Federal Government.” If the Court did not make this ruling, he added, “the assurance against unreasonable federal searches and seizures would be ‘a form of words,’ valueless and undeserving of mention in a perpetual charter of inestimable human liberties.”


The exclusionary rule is not absolute, and over the years, the Supreme Court has specified that there are a number of instances when it does not apply. Some prominent exceptions include:

  • Search Incident to Arrest: Suspects who are lawfully arrested may be searched for weapons and contraband, but this search does not include BAC blood tests and other invasive procedures that violate privacy rights.
  • Investigatory Stop: If they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, officers may pat down un-arrested suspects to look for weapons, and whatever they find is generally admissible in court.
  • Plain View: If an officer stops a vehicle at a DUI checkpoint and sees a gun in the back seat, the officer does not need a warrant to seize the gun and arrest the driver.
  • Good Faith: Several decisions in the last few years, including Herring v. United States (2009), Heien v. North Carolina (2014), and Utah v. Strieff (2016), have basically expanded this doctrine to allow almost all searches that are not conducted maliciously and have some basis in the law.
  • Automobile Exception: If police have probable cause to believe that motor vehicles contain evidence of a crime, they do not need warrants to search them.
  • Officers do not need warrants if the owner consents to the search or if they are in hot pursuit.

    Contact Aggressive Attorneys

    In most cases, officers must have valid warrants to seize evidence. For prompt assistance in this area, contact an experienced Schaumburg criminal defense attorney from Glasgow & Olsson. Convenient payment plans are available.

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