Warrants and Your Rights

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects you and your things from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”[1] That means the police must have probable cause to make an arrest or to search through your belongings.


A warrant is a court order that allows the police to do certain things.

If the police have a warrant to look for evidence of a crime, it is called a search warrant. For the police to get a search warrant, they must have enough information – probable cause – to explain to a judge that a crime has likely been committed, and that evidence of a crime is likely to be found at a specific location. If the judge agrees there is probable cause, then the police get a search warrant.

The police are at my home

If the police are at your home, ask the officers if they have a warrant. If they do not, you do not need to let them in to your house – even if they ask.[2] Remember, when an officer asks for your permission to do something, if you agree you are giving up your constitutional protections.

If the officers have a warrant, ask to see the warrant and to keep a copy. Double check that the warrant lists the address you are at correctly. The warrant only allows the police to enter if it correctly lists the address to be searched. If it is for the wrong address, tell the officers and say you do not give them permission to enter.[3]

The Constitution requires the warrant to clearly describe the items the police are searching for and taking.[4]

Otherwise, remain silent. Even though the police have a warrant, you do not need to answer their questions while they are searching your house or apartment.

The police want to take my cell phone

Police need a search warrant to search through your cell phone.[5] If an officer asks you to unlock your phone or to search your phone, you have the right to decline. The officer, however, may be able to take the cellphone as evidence.

Reasonable expectation of privacy

The Fourth Amendment only protects against “unreasonable” searches. A search is reasonable if the police can see something illegal that is out in the open or in “plain view” – visible through a window or in someone’s backyard.[6] As long as the policeofficer is not trespassing, and can tell from just looking at the item that it is illegal or evidence of a crime, the search is likely reasonable.

There are also many exceptions to the requirement for the police to have a warrant. Some of the most common exceptions are when the police search someone after he or she is arrested, called a “search incident to arrest.”[7] Two other common exceptions are the automobile and inventory search exceptions. Under the automobile exception, a police officer can search someone’s car without a warrant when the officer has probable cause there are illegal things in the car.[8] The inventory search applies to things the police have impounded – like a bag or a car. If the police impound the item, they can go through it.[9]

[1]U.S. Const. Amend. IV.

[2]U.S. Const. Amend. IV.

[3] Marylandv. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79, 80 (1979).

[4] Grohv. Ramirez, 520 U.S. 551, 557 (2004).

[5] Rileyv. California, 573 U.S. 373, 388 (2014).

[6] Californiav. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207 (1986).

[7] Rawlingsv. Kentucky, 448 U.S. 98, 100 (1980).

[8] Carrollv. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1924).

[9] Illinoisv. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640, 641 (1983); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428U.S. 364, 365 (1976).