The Types of Searches and Seizures that are Allowed by Law

Under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you have the right to be free from certain searches or seizure of property. What is the full extent of that protection? What types of searches are permissible as interpreted by the courts?

The 4th Amendment guarantees the right to be secure in your “person, house(s), papers and effects.” The searches must be “reasonable.” Furthermore, to obtain a warrant to conduct a search, the requesting party must have “probable cause.”

For all intents and purposes, almost any location or record can be the subject of a search. The courts have sanctioned searches of homes, outbuildings, motor vehicles, boats, business offices, financial records, computer files, and business documents, among other things. The court has also rejected 4th Amendment challenges to drug and blood testing, provided other requirements of the 4th Amendment are met.

The Supreme Court has allowed law enforcement officers to make warrantless searches on a limited basis. In a 1968 ruling, the Court held that in situations where police officers personally observe “unusual conduct” that leads to the reasonable belief that illegal activity is imminent or taking place, where police believe that a suspicious person has a weapon, and that the suspicious person poses an immediate threat to the officer or others, the police officer may conduct a “pat-down” search, also known as a frisk.

The courts have also adopted a “balancing test,” allowing warrantless searches where, upon balance, the need of society is great and the intrusion on an individual’s privacy is minimal. This approach has been used to sanction discretion-less sobriety or immigration checkpoints for drivers. However, such attempted searches or seizures are not allowed to be conducted at the discretion of police officers.

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