Fourth Amendment Searches That Are Not Criminal in Nature

Searches that are not criminal in nature can still violate your Fourth Amendment rights. Examples include a pat-down or frisk, administrative searches (factory, inventory), and cause of fire searches.


After a suspect is arrested, they are given a jail uniform and have to relinquish their clothing and personal items. They must also submit to a fingerprint impression.

Automobile Searches

In many states, law enforcement officers have greater leeway to search automobiles without a warrant than they do homes or other private property. Court decisions have upheld this vehicle exception to the fourth amendment, citing that vehicles are easily moved and that it is impractical to obtain a warrant without jeopardizing any evidence inside the car. The searches must be based on probable cause and related to the reason for the traffic stop.

If police have a reasonable suspicion that you are carrying a weapon or drugs in your vehicle, they can search the areas that they can reach. For example, they may check the glove box, center console, or trunk of your vehicle. They can also look in bags or containers within your vehicle. If they have a reasonable suspicion that you are carrying drugs, they can even open your purse or wallet. In addition, law enforcement officers can search your car when you consent to a search or if it is searched as part of a search incident to arrest.

Minor traffic violations such as speeding do not provide the police with sufficient probable cause to justify a warrantless search of your vehicle, but nervous behavior can be construed as showing that you have a weapon in your possession and thus give rise to a protective search. Similarly, if you are arrested and the officer conducts a search incident to arrest, this can be considered an inventory search and any incriminating items found may be used against you.

Home Searches

Nowhere do people have a stronger presumption of privacy than in their own homes. Police need a warrant to search someone’s home or car, but there are certain exceptions to this rule. One of these exceptions is if the person consents to the search. The person must have the authority to give the consent and have access to all areas of the property searched. For example, if an officer suggests to a suspect that they should return home to handle personal needs before going to jail, the police may then search their residence as part of the search incident to arrest.

Another search exception is if the person who commits an offense would normally be given a citation, but instead they are arrested and the officer has probable cause to believe that they committed the crime. In this case, the officer can proceed to search the person and their surroundings.

It’s also possible for a police officer to run an outstanding warrant search on a person while they are in custody or after they have been released. This could help the police find other criminal cases that are connected to this person. It is important to remember that anything a person says voluntarily can be used against them in court, and it’s advisable for people who are being detained or released to have a lawyer with them.

Protective Sweeps

Protective sweeps are a type of search that police officers can conduct without a warrant when they need to protect themselves. These searches usually take place in a residence where officers have an arrest warrant for someone and need to enter the house to make the arrest. However, this search can also occur when a person consents to a search of their home and police think that parts of the home they cannot see may contain danger. It is also possible for police to perform protective sweeps when they are executing a search warrant or conducting a probation search.

In Buie, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment permits a properly limited protective sweep in conjunction with an in-home arrest when the officer possesses “specific and articulable facts which would warrant a reasonably prudent officer to believe that the area to be swept harbors an individual who poses a danger to those on the arrest scene.” This exception does not extend to cases where officers are simply entering a home for other purposes, such as a probation or search warrant.

In United States v. Vargas, DEA agents visited a man at his motel to interrogate him. When the man refused to open the ajar bathroom door, the agents searched the bathroom and found heroin in the bathtub. The lower court and Circuit Court suppressed the evidence. The agents did not have a warrant, proper consent or exigent circumstances to search the bathroom.

Cell Phone Searches

Cell phones are often loaded with digital information that can be used to incriminate the owner. The Supreme Court has found that even a single photo or video on a suspect’s phone may be enough to support a conviction if the person is accused of a serious crime.

The police can only search a suspect’s cellphone without a warrant if it is a reasonable belief that the device has evidence of the crime in question, or if there are exigent circumstances. A person’s cellphone could also contain critical information about their health or safety, so law enforcement officers may also use the “search incident to arrest” doctrine to search a person’s phone when they are arrested for a crime.

In some cases, detectives can bypass the warrant requirement by requesting the information from cell phone carriers directly. They also employ contemporary interrogation techniques to get the consent necessary to search a person’s phone. This includes reassuring the suspect that the information they are looking for is specific, which can alleviate their anxiety and prevent them from refusing to give consent.

If you have been stopped by police or arrested for a crime and they want to search your cell phone, call an experienced criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can help you understand your rights and fight to protect them, including by seeking to have any illegally obtained evidence excluded from your case.