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Top Five Search Warrant Exceptions


During the Colonial period, Americans resented the fact that British officials used blank search warrants to rummage through their personal property any time they wanted to do so. So, the Founding Fathers added the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. This provision states that search warrants must be based on probable cause.

Over the years, the Supreme Court has carved out a number of exceptions to this rule. The most common ones are discussed below.

Evidence admissibility is essential to Tampa criminal defense attorneys in these cases. Since the state must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutors must have an overwhelming amount of evidence. If even some of the proffered evidence is legally inadmissible, it’s almost impossible to meet this burden of proof.


Owners, or apparent owners, may voluntarily allow police officers to search their property. That property could be something large, like a house or car, or something small, like a purse. An apparent owner is a person like a roommate whose name is not on the lease.

Consent is a voluntary, affirmative act. Officers cannot pressure people into consenting. That pressure includes threatening to get a warrant unless they provide consent. Additionally, opening the front door is not consent. At best, that act constitutes assent, which is very different.

Exigent Circumstances

If officers believe someone is in trouble, they may enter a building or dwelling without a warrant and perform a safety sweep. The classic case is a report of a gas leak.

The ensuing sweep is limited. Officers cannot poke into every nook and cranny. They certainly cannot open safes. Additionally, if there is a reported gas leak in a house, officers usually cannot search a detached garage.

Stop and Frisk

If officers have reasonable suspicion, they may stop people on the street, frisk them for weapons, and keep any contraband they see (or rather feel) in plain view. Under current law, “reasonable suspicion” is basically an evidence-based hunch.

Search Incident to Arrest

Once upon a time, this exception was at the top of the list. Officers often “arrested” people for things like speeding and then extensively searched their vehicles. But the Supreme Court recently limited such searches to weapons pat-downs. So, this exception does not come up very much anymore.

Plain View

If officers are legally in a certain place at a certain time, they may seize any drugs, weapons, or other contraband they see in plain view. Let’s unpack these two elements.

Lawful presence usually depends on the detention’s legality. Officers cannot pull over motorists or accost people on the street based on a hunch or because the person doesn’t look right. Instead, officers must have some evidence of criminal activity.

Frequently, contraband is partially within plain view. For example, a gun’s barrel might be protruding from under a seat. That barrel could belong to an illegal firearm or a BB gun.

Cell phone searches are a bit more complex. Even if the phone is not password-protected, the home screen is usually the only part of a smartphone within plain view. Before officers swipe, they must have a warrant.

Reach Out to an Experienced Attorney

Physical evidence is only admissible in court if officers had a warrant or a narrow exception applies. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, contact the OA Law Firm. We routinely handle matters in Hillsborough County and nearby jurisdictions.

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