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A search warrant is a court-order that allows the police to search specific property and items. Sometimes the police do not need a warrant, other times, they do. On those other times, the police will want to conduct the search, but not bring a warrant with them because they have yet to obtain it. The owners of the property may not be aware that they can deny the police the search until they return with the warrant. When the police do have a warrant, the property owner may not know what the warrant is for, so to help protect yourself, here is some information to know:

  • The police must have probable cause of criminal activity in order to get a search warrant.
  • The warrant will list the items and areas that can be searched. Anything not on the list cannot be searched. For example, if the warrant specifies a home’s living room, the police cannot search and seize anything they find in the bedroom.
  • The police can seize items they come across during their search that are not on the search warrant. For example, if they are searching the living room and unexpectedly find a gun hidden under the couch, they can take that.
  • The police may only search a person if that person is listed on the warrant. They cannot search others even if they are present at the time unless they have independent probable cause.
  • If the police do not have a warrant, they can still conduct a search only if the person allows it. The person can limit the search by agreeing “yes to searching this” or “no to searching that.” This is usually valid for court.
  • The police can seize items that are displayed in plain view. For example, if the police pull a person over and see an open bottle of alcohol in the back seat, they can seize it, and arrest the driver.
  • If the police arrest a person, they already have the right to search the arrestee and the surrounding area.
  • If the public is genuinely in danger and/ or critical evidence will be lost in the time it takes to acquire a warrant, the police can carry out a search without that warrant.
  • In stop and frisk situations, the police can seize items (like weapons) from that person who is suspected of criminal activity.

The lines may still appear blurred for when police do or do not need a warrant, or for when a person can and cannot deny a search. So we recommend doing extra research or talking with a lawyer.