When is a police search legal?

If you're stopped by police on the street or in your car, or if they enter a residence where you happen to be, it's understandable that you panic. Often, people in these situations submit to anything a law enforcement officer asks or tells them to do.

There are limits to these officers' rights regarding search and seizure. However, whatever you've learned in school or by watching "Law and Order" may go flying out of your head when you're the one facing police.

Police may engage in searches without a warrant when people have no "legitimate expectation of privacy." If you have drugs lying out in plain view in a public place, that's very different than if they're in the glove compartment of your car when you've been stopped for speeding and are showing no signs of being under the influence. Police have to show that they have reasonable expectation that a person has committed a crime to engage in such a search.

If police obtain a warrant and search your vehicle or home, that warrant needs to specify exactly what areas they're allowed to search. If something is in plain sight, however, that item can be used against you. Perhaps they have a warrant to search your garage, but there's a crack pipe on the ground in the driveway. That could be problematic.

Police are also allowed to ensure their own safety with a "protective sweep" of a home. If the police are in "hot pursuit" of a person whom they believe has committed a crime and who escapes into a home, they may enter and search that home without a warrant.

If you have been arrested and you believe that the police have obtained incriminating evidence through illegal search and seizure, it's essential that you notify your attorney. If that is the case, he or she can work to get that evidence thrown out.

Source: FindLaw, "Searches and Seizures: The Limitations of the Police," accessed Nov. 30, 2017