While police officers agree to serve and protect, sometimes that serving leads to illegal searches.
New Jersey law prohibits officers from conducting a search and seizure without a warrant, which continues to get upheld in the courts. Like with many things, the nuances of legal and illegal searches come with exceptions.
1. Giving consent
Whether a traffic stop or getting a knock on the door, an officer cannot conduct a search without a warrant. If the officer asks for permission to do so and the person consents, the officer does not need a warrant. A person must give consent without coercion and must have an acknowledgment that they have the right to refuse.
2. Having illegal items in plain view
Another common way police officers can circumvent a warrant often happens by accident. If interacting with an officer and potential evidence or illegal materials, such as drugs, lay in plain view, the officer has the right to seize the evidence. Prior to getting close enough to see the items, an officer must still have probable cause to come onto the property or look inside a vehicle. Additionally, law enforcement must clearly note that the apparent items can get classified as evidence or contraband.
3. Searching after an arrest
Law enforcement can do a quick pat down to ensure that a person has no weapons during an interaction. They cannot conduct a thorough search of bags or pockets without a warrant. That changes during an arrest. If they have probable cause for an arrest, officers can legally search the person and nearby surroundings for potential evidence.
Although exceptions to the rule, law enforcement may not always easily prove the legality of the search.