Search and Seizure Laws in California

If you live in California, it is important to understand your rights as they pertain to searches conducted by law enforcement. When do the police have the right to search your home, your person or your property? When do they need a warrant? What can you do if a police officer conducts an illegal search?

These are all issues that a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney at Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP may be able to answer for you, based on the unique facts of your case. You can also find basic information regarding California's search and seizure laws here, in this blog.

First, let's look at the description of a lawful search. A search may be defined as a government intrusion on one's personal privacy, such as an instance where law enforcement officers enter a person's home to look for evidence of a crime. A seizure may be defined as government interference with a person and/or his or her property. Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, law enforcement officers are prohibited from conducting unreasonable searches and seizure. But what is an unreasonable search or seizure?

In most cases, law enforcement must obtain a warrant to conduct a search and/or seizure. A valid warrant, properly executed, may mean that a search and seizure are considered reasonable. A warrant, which is issued by a judge, may describe the type of item to be searched for, the property to be searched or other parameters that should be followed by law enforcement personnel executing the search. A search and/or seizure without a warrant or beyond the scope of a warrant may be considered unreasonable.

When can a search be conducted without a warrant?

There are some instances where a search may be conducted without a warrant. This may include:

  • Circumstances where immediate action is necessary to prevent physical harm to officers or others, the destruction of evidence, the escape of a suspect or another consequence that interferes with legitimate efforts by law enforcement to carry out their duties;
  • Cases where a person gives consent for a search to be performed;
  • A search conducted immediately following a lawful arrest, in which the arrestee and the area in his or her immediate control may be searched for weapons, evidence, etc.;
  • Lawful inspections at sobriety checkpoints, border patrol checkpoints, airport security, etc.;
  • Vehicle searches, if the law enforcement officer has reason to believe that the vehicle may hold evidence of a crime;
  • The seizure of items that are in plain view, if there is probable cause that these items are evidence; and
  • Situations where a person would have no reasonable expectation of privacy, such as an abandoned vehicle or other property.

It is important to note that even these exceptions are subject to such principles as probable cause, and officers have an obligation to act as a reasonable peace officer would in similar circumstances. A victim who is coerced or forced into giving consent, for example, may have been subjected to an unreasonable search.

What happens when a search is conducted illegally?

When search and seizure laws are violated, the evidence obtained in such a search may be considered inadmissible in court. This could turn an entire case around. Here is a basic example:

  • Doug is having a party at his house. A neighbor complains of noise and calls the police, who arrive at Doug's door. They enter the house without Doug's consent and begin searching various rooms, eventually finding cocaine on the counter in Doug's bathroom. They arrest Doug and he is charged with cocaine possession. If Doug's attorney can show that the police entered his home without consent and without probable cause to believe a crime was being committed, the cocaine recovered in the illegal search may be deemed inadmissible. The prosecution's entire case may crumble, leading to an acquittal or dismissal.

For more information and insight, contact a Los Angeles criminal lawyer at our firm.