Searches For Criminal Suspects

In general, officers can search persons and places when they have probable cause to do so. Some searches don’t need warrants, like those conducted in hot pursuit, and those made to protect the officer or prevent destruction of evidence.


Probable cause is more than a mere unarticulated hunch; it requires facts that rise to the level of reasonable suspicion.

Search Incident to Arrest

Searches incident to arrest are warrantless searches conducted by police officers that allow them to search a person and the area immediately surrounding them. The search is typically justified as being necessary to ensure officer safety and to preserve evidence. The legal standard is that the search must be contemporaneous with and within the immediate vicinity of the arrest, and limited to items that can be associated with the suspect.

In the case of a car, this could mean items in the passenger compartment or on the dashboard. In the case of a person, this would typically include their pockets, clothing, and possibly their mobile phone and bag. The officer must also have probable cause to believe that the person is a criminal suspect and that the evidence to be found may be relevant to an ongoing investigation.

Another factor to consider is time and space. For a search to be incident to arrest, it must take place at the time of or shortly after the actual arrest. The search must also be limited to the person or area of their control. For example, if someone is arrested outside of their home and they decide to run back into the house to handle some personal business, the police cannot follow them inside the home and conduct a search of the interior on the basis that it is a search incident to their arrest.

Protective Sweep

When police officers are making an arrest inside a house or other structure, they may conduct a protective sweep without a warrant to ensure their safety. This allows officers to look for any other individuals who might be in the home and could potentially ambush them as they make their arrest. It is important to note that this exception does not apply when police are in a home due to consent, search warrant, or exigent circumstances because those searches are already governed by the Fourth Amendment and any searches conducted outside of their permitted purpose violate the law.

Officers conducting a protective sweep must have specific and articulable facts that would lead a reasonable officer to believe that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing danger to the officers present. This can include anything from the nervousness of the suspect to furtive movements, extra cars in the driveway, or even places where people are known to hide things, such as a medicine cabinet.

However, there are some cases in which officers have pushed the limits of what can be considered reasonable. For example, one case found that the evidence seized by police from looking in kitchen cabinets and a microwave during a protective sweep was not credible and should have been suppressed. It is essential that law enforcement be able to articulate the factual basis for the search they are conducting because any illegal items found could be excluded from the case at trial.

Searches for Evidence

A search warrant is an order issued by a judge that authorizes police to search and confiscate evidence of a crime. It is generally based on an affidavit and must be supported by probable cause. Exceptional circumstances may justify searches without a warrant, including emergencies like the situation where an arrest must be made “now or never” in order to preserve evidence. Other exceptions include searches incident to arrest and administrative searches.

The scope of a search is determined by the situation that prompts the search, such as a traffic stop, or a patdown of an individual. The scope of a search incident to arrest is limited to the area surrounding the person being arrested. If the officers search beyond this, any evidence found would be excluded at trial.

Administrative searches do not require a warrant, and include roadblocks, vehicle checks and searches at factories or warehouses, detention of travelers, cause of fire searches and so forth. Officers may also conduct a search of an individual’s car without a warrant if they have reasonable suspicion that the suspect has committed a crime in progress or is about to commit a crime.

A person who has had their rights violated in any way by a search or other search by law enforcement, including the seizure of property and information, should contact an attorney to determine what legal remedies are available. A successful civil suit against the police department could result in compensation to the victim for damages incurred by the search.

Searches for Weapons

If officers have reasonable suspicion that you are carrying a weapon, they can search your person and the immediate area around you. This is known as a protective search. A police officer can perform this kind of search without a warrant and only for the purpose of ensuring that you are not about to threaten their safety or destroy evidence. This kind of search is usually done when an individual reaches for or puts something in their pockets contrary to police orders or when they are being arrested.

During a pat-down search, the police officers will gently run their hands over the outer surfaces of your clothing. If they find any object that could be used to commit a crime or cause serious injury, they will keep it until they have finished questioning you, and then either return it if lawfully possessed or arrest you for possessing it.

This type of search is based on the Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio, which permits a police officer to stop and frisk persons who they have reasonable suspicion that are about to engage in the commission of a crime or may be armed and dangerous. A court will consider the facts of a particular case in determining whether or not such searches are reasonable and necessary. The search for weapons incident to a traffic or criminal investigation, as well as administrative searches (vehicle checkpoints and roadblocks, factory and inventory searches, detention of a traveler and cause of fire searches), do not require a warrant. Any searches that are not conducted with a warrant must be documented in a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) entry or other police-generated report.