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Tampa Criminal Attorney > Blog > Criminal Defense > Top Five Search Warrant Exceptions

Top Five Search Warrant Exceptions


Many large, multi agency investigations culminate in a search warrant. Frequently in these cases, officers spend months or years collecting enough evidence to establish probable cause in affidavits. In other law enforcement contacts, most notably traffic stops, things happen much faster. There’s no warrant. Therefore, when these cases go to court, unless a narrow search warrant exception applies, the seized evidence is inadmissible under the exclusionary rule. The main exceptions are outlined below.

If a Tampa criminal defense lawyer excludes key evidence, it’s very difficult for prosecutors to move forward with the case. So, they’re usually willing to make favorable plea bargain arrangements. These agreements often include reduced charges, a lesser sentence, or even pretrial diversion, which is a form of a dismissal. If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, a Tampa criminal defense attorney has an excellent chance of winning a trial in these situations.


Owners, or apparent owners, may consent to property searches. An apparent owner is someone like a driver who doesn’t legally own the car.

In a criminal case, consent is a voluntary and affirmative act. If officers threaten to press additional charges if the owner doesn’t consent, that consent is involuntary. Opening a door for an officer isn’t consent. At best, this act is assent.

Technically, owners can withdraw consent. But lots of luck proving withdrawn consent in court. Owners cannot give limited consent (e.g. don’t look in the basement).

Plain View

As mentioned, most criminal cases begin with traffic stops, and the plain view exception often comes up in these situations.

If officers see illegal drugs or weapons in plain view, they may seize them without a warrant. Knowledge of illegality could be an issue. For example, if an officer sees marijuana or a handgun, the defendant might have a prescription or a license.

Furthermore, plain view is just that. An officer must see the object. If a police officer sees a defendant acting like s/he’s trying to hide something immediately before a traffic stop, the officer cannot use those furtive gestures to justify a warrantless search.

Finally, officers must be legally in that place at that time. So, if the traffic stop is illegal, a subsequent plain view seizure is also illegal.

Weapons Pat-Down

If officers stop suspects on the street, and they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, they may pat suspects down for weapons. Reasonable suspicion, a concept that the Supreme Court has repeatedly diluted in recent years, is basically an evidence-based hunch.

These stops and searches are quite controversial, since many people associate them with racial profiling.

Exigent Circumstances

This exception often arises in dwelling searches. If officers reasonably believe someone might be in trouble, they can enter a building without a warrant and perform a security sweep.

A security sweep is just that. Officers cannot look into every corner or closet. They can only move through the building and ensure that everyone is safe. These searches also have limited scopes. Usually, officers cannot use this exception as an excuse to search unattached garages or tool sheds.

Search Incident to Arrest

Before 1990, this exception was at the top of the list. Officers routinely “arrested” individuals for speeding or other minor infractions, turned their vehicles upside-down during searches, and rescinded the arrest if they didn’t find anything illegal.

Nowadays, this exception doesn’t come up very often. In 1990, the Supreme Court limited searches incident to arrests to weapons pat-downs, which were outlined above.

 Reach Out to a Compassionate Hillsborough County Attorney

A criminal charge is not the same thing as a criminal conviction. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, contact the OA Law Firm. We routinely handle matters throughout the Tampa Bay area.



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