What are the limits of the police to search me or my home?

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution says that you have a right to be free of unreasonable police searches and seizures. The police cannot stop you while you are walking down the street unless they have some reasonable justification for believing that you either have committed a criminal offense or are about to commit a criminal offense. If a police officer sees you walking down the street engaging in some unusual behavior, stops you to question you about this, and sees a conspicuous bulge under your coat that looks like it may be a pistol, then he or she may detain you and pat you down to determine if it is in fact a pistol. If it is a pistol and you are not allowed to be carrying such a concealed weapon, then you may be arrested.

A police officer, however, may not stop you and detain you while you walk down the street simply because you look suspicious or unsavory. Instead, he or she must have some reason that can be articulated that would cause a reasonable person to conclude that you have committed some criminal offense or are about to commit a criminal offense.

The police cannot randomly come into your home and conduct a search. Generally, the police need to have a search warrant to conduct a search of the premises. In certain emergency circumstances, they may be allowed to come into the premises and con­duct a search. This is only allowed if it is necessary in order to accomplish an arrest of a person whom they believe has committed a crime or if it is necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence. If time permits, however, the police are required to obtain a warrant issued by a judge or magistrate authorizing the search and entry into a home.

Once a person has been arrested, the arresting officer is allowed to search that person and to search the area within arm's reach of that person. Anything that is found as a result of that type of search may be used against the defendant. Likewise, if there is some illegal substance or item that is within plain view of the officer while he or she is lawfully in the premises, then that substance or item may be seized and used against the defendant.

Vehicle searches are frequently the subject of controversy. When a motor vehicle operator is arrested and taken to the police station, his or her vehicle is typically impounded. The police are then authorized to conduct an inventory search of the vehicle. Since the vehicle has come into their possession, it is in the interest of the police to determine whether there are any items of value in that vehicle, so that they are not later charged with a misappropriation of those items. They typically will conduct an inventory search of the vehicle and if there is some illegal substance or material found in the vehicle, it could be the basis of a criminal prosecution.

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