Back on Oct. 10, we discussed how police officers in Pittsburgh sometimes search people's homes and seize property without having obtained a search warrant first. Though the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is generally interpreted to require that law enforcement obtain a warrant before entering and searching a home, exceptions to that rule do exist. In cases where officers conducted a warrantless search, the officers and prosecutors who bring charges based on the search's results often will claim one of these exceptions as justification.
In an example from another state, police arrested two roommates on drug charges after responding to a noise complaint against their apartment. According to the officers, while speaking to the apartment's residents, they noticed drug paraphernalia sitting in plain view. The officers seized the objects and asked for permission to conduct a search of the premises.
The suspects consented to the search, the officers said. One of them, a 20-year-old man, allegedly admitted to having marijuana in a safe and gave an officer the key. The officer later said he opened the safe and found around two grams of marijuana and nearly $3,200 in cash. The suspect told the officer that he got the money from selling marijuana, the officer said. A search of the other suspect's bedroom allegedly uncovered marijuana and drug paraphernalia as well. Both men were arrested.
Since the officers cannot claim they had a warrant to search the apartment for drugs, it appears from their account of the arrests that they intend to claim the plain view exception as well as consent. Under the plain view exception, law enforcement need not get a warrant to seize contraband items that are in plain view of the police while they are legitimately allowed on the premises. Also, police do not need to get a warrant when the occupant gives free and voluntary consent for a search.
Whether the officers' account of what happened is accurate could be key to establishing that the search was not illegal. It could make the difference between the evidence against the suspects being admitted or kept out of court.
Source: Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Two men face drug charges after search," Lee Hermiston, Oct. 29, 2012