Los Angeles Police Search Rights
What Rules Must Law Enforcement Follow When Searching My Property?
Q: When are the police allowed to enter my home or business?
A: There’s an old adage here in the United States that a man is the king of his castle, and there is still an old “wild west” element that nobody is allowed to enter your house without your permission or without a search warrant, and a search warrant is when a judge or a magistrate signs a piece of paper saying that there is probable cause to believe there has been a crime committed therein.
The only exception is what we call “exigent circumstances,” or where there is an emergency such as somebody screaming for help or gunshots behind the door. Then obviously not only common sense but the law would dictate that the police can go in.
Q: Can I refuse to let the police enter my home or business?
A: The answer is yes. You can absolutely refuse to let the police or anyone else in unless they have a warrant.
Q: What is a search warrant?
A: A search warrant is a probable cause declaration which police bring to judges.
Scenario: Somebody tips off the police that they believe their neighbors are drug-dealing. The police then set up surveillance, and they write a report for a judge to sign that says, “Between midnight and 4 a.m. we saw 40 people come knock at the door, exchange something, and then leave. Based on my training and experience in the academy this looks like narcotic sales. In addition, we stopped one of those people, and they told us that they had just bought narcotics at the location.” The police write all of that up in what is called an “Affidavit for a Search Warrant,” and they bring it to the judge and say, “Judge, here is what we saw, give us a search warrant.” They now are able to articulate that there was probable cause to believe that a crime (i.e.: drug dealing) has been committed there and the judge signs a search warrant, which gives them access.
Q: Can the police seize something of mine without a warrant?
A: Generally the search and/or seizure, according to the 4th Amendment, is prohibited unless the police have a warrant. There are many exceptions to the warrant requirement; one is “plain view.” If the police come to your house and you open the door and they see an illegal firearm there or they see drugs on the table, then the plain view exception would come in and they can seize it.
Q: Can the police ever enter my home without permission or a warrant?
A: The general answer is no. Unless of course emergency circumstances apply. If there is a fire, obviously, they can enter. If someone is screaming they can enter, but the general rule is no. Do the police always follow that? No. Sometimes the police will enter your home without a warrant.
Q: Can I be searched or “frisked” if I’m not under arrest?
A: The answer is yes. There’s a case “Terry v. Ohio,” that’s what we call a “Terry Pat,” which means the police are allowed to stop and frisk you for officer safety if they just have a small suspicion that a crime has taken place. That is your typical pat down search and was supposed to be for weapons, but what has developed from the Terry case is called the “plain feel” exception. So for instance, most of us patting someone down might be able to tell the shape of a gun, might be able to tell the shape of a screwdriver. Officers with experience say they can feel what feels like a baggie with marijuana, a syringe or a variety of other things.
Q: Can I refuse to allow the police to search me or my property?
A: Yes. At any time you can and should refuse to allow the police to search you or your property. You never know. Somebody could have visited your house and left something illegal there. Somebody could even have put something in your pocket. It happens.
Q: Under what circumstances can the police stop me while driving?
A: They’re supposed to only stop you if they believe some type of offense has been committed or they have a suspicion of such offense. However, under most state vehicle codes, there are so many offenses that almost anything you can think of doing could be an offense, from a dome light out in your car to a cracked tail light. Even minor things: if they think your tires are bald, any minor offense. They have the right to stop you and then question you.
Q: Under what circumstances can the police search my car?
A: There’s a long line of cases that once they stop you even if for a minor violation if suspicion arises for anything, they can search your car. The cases have now been extended to provide for officer safety. So they are almost allowed to search your car for anything. If they believe there might be a weapon in the car they can take everyone out of the car and search the car for officer safety to make sure there are no weapons.