Other Types of Warrantless Searches

The following are some of the situations in which law enforcement agents can search without a warrant. But never just agree to a search because it appears that one of these reasons applies: make sure that the officer gives you a direct order, so it can’t be argued that you consented to the search.

Court Supervision

A typical condition of court supervision (probation, parole, supervised release) is that law enforcement agents are allowed to search your person, vehicle, home, and/or workplace without probable cause (see Searches While Under Supervision).

Search Following Arrest

When you’re arrested, the officers can search your body and the belongings you have with you. If you’re indoors, the officers can search the area under your immediate control (the distance to which you can lunge). Officers can have blood samples or fingernail scrapings taken, to preserve potential evidence that would otherwise disappear.

Automobile Searches

If you’re arrested in a car, the officers can search the passenger compartment, because that’s the area under your immediate control. Whether or not anyone’s been arrested, if law enforcement agents have probable cause1 to believe that your vehicle contains proof of a crime, they can search it without a warrant—and open any container in the car that might hold the items they’re seeking. If your car is impounded for any reason, even for just being in a tow-away zone, the officers can search the whole vehicle, including the trunk.

Exigent Circumstances

“Exigent,” in this context, means urgent, a circumstance that demands immediate attention. Law enforcement agents can enter when there’s a fire or other danger, to deal with it or to rescue people, and they can investigate the cause of a fire for a limited time. In addition, officers can enter in hot pursuit of a serious criminal, or to capture one who’s about to escape. Judges usually find that if the police had less than half an hour in which to act, then proceeding without a warrant is reasonable.

Emergency Response

When officers hear a cry for help, they can enter a building in response. If law enforcement agents believe that a child is being abused or is in other immediate danger, they can enter the premises to rescue her.

Students at Public Schools

On school grounds, school officials can search a student and the belongings she’s carrying, if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the student has violated the law or a school rule. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause.2

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t yet analyzed whether a student has a right to privacy in her locker or desk. Various lower courts have produced conflicting opinions. Under the circumstances, a sensible student would not want to keep her most private possessions at school.

Drug Testing

The courts sometimes find drug testing constitutional. High school students can be required to submit to random drug testing in order to engage in sports, band, chorus, or academic competitions. Employees in certain high-risk jobs can be required to drug test (such as railroad workers who’ve been in an accident or broken safety rules; or applicants for U.S. Customs jobs that relate to drug-smuggling or that involve carrying a gun).

Airline Passengers

Passengers on airlines can be required to go through metal detectors and submit to searches of their bodies and their possessions, before boarding the plane. Of course, a passenger may change her mind and decide not to take the flight after all, in which case she can’t be searched. However, once the passenger has cooperated with even part of the search process—by handing over her luggage or going through the metal detector—she cannot stop the process until the authorities are completely done searching. 

1. and 2.  Probable cause is the amount of proof required to get a search warrant or arrest someone.  Reasonable suspicion is the amount of proof required to detain someone.  See Detention and Arrest.