Whether you’re sitting at home, watching a movie with your family, or relaxing in bed alone, you expect privacy… especially from the police. After all, you’re there in the safety of your own property and there are rights that safeguard you against unwarranted searches. That’s what the average person might think. However, that isn’t always the case.

Though Americans have the constitutional right to privacy, when it comes to police searches, it’s vital to recognize that an intrusion from the police without a warrant can be legal. In Ohio, warrantless searches are more common than you might imagine. As long as an incident matches the appropriate guidelines for unwarranted searches, such a search can legally be conducted.

A legal search and seizure without a warrant can occur through something known as “exigent circumstances.” Exigent circumstances can be confusing, so we’ve detailed everything you need to know about exigency below. 

The Fourth Amendment: Obtaining a Warrant

The biggest argument against unwarranted searches is the presence of the Fourth Amendment. This amendment talks about the basic human right to privacy. Under its rule, law enforcement must obtain a search warrant prior to searching and seizing your private property. In fact, any information obtained during a warrantless search is deemed presumptively unreasonable.

The keyword in the Fourth Amendment is “unreasonable.” If the search of someone’s property is intrusive, the investigation may not be valid. On the other hand, if there are reasonable circumstances that allow law enforcement to believe that the search is necessary, an unwarranted search can be deemed to be legally permissible.

The Right To Privacy in Ohio

The right to privacy is not only emphasized in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Both federal and state governments support privacy rights. This means Ohio’s Constitution also stresses the importance of appropriate government searches.

Article I.14 of the Ohio Constitution states that people have the right to be secure in their own bodies, in their homes, and with their possessions. Searches and seizures must not violate the rights of the people and can only be conducted with a search warrant. A warrant must also refer to a specific place, person, and type of property to be seized.

Hence, illegal searches would include any that violate the general right to privacy. Warrants are also required for an investigation when probable cause is not in play. In short, both the United States Constitution and the Ohio Constitution support privacy as one of your unalienable rights.

If there are situations in which law enforcement might reasonably suspect it is necessary to search or seize your property, however, an unwarranted search may be legal.

What Are Exigent Circumstances?

Exigent circumstances are one of the most prevalent reasons given for unwarranted searches. The word “exigent” means urgency. This explains why many lawyers and law enforcement personnel refer to the exception to the rule of privacy as the “emergency doctrine.” Conditions that involve an immediate necessity to investigate a case further are thus known as exigent circumstances.

Though the general definition of exigency is understood to permit unwarranted searches in urgent situations, neither Congress nor the state of Ohio has set specific definitions for what constitutes an emergency. This leaves this warrant exception up to interpretation from the court. For this reason, the determination of whether an emergency was present is rooted in the analysis of past exigency cases.

How Are Exigent Circumstances Determined?

Because there is no set legal definition for what constitutes an exigent circumstance, all cases that involve the emergency doctrine are settled on a case-by-case basis. These events are often complex and require expert legal analysis.

The first step in identifying whether a criminal case is truly emergent is examining legal precedence. This means that lawyers read through past cases and judicial decisions to identify whether a similar situation has ever happened in the past. These outcomes can be used to argue for the legality or intrusiveness of the search.

Next, it’s important to determine whether your individual case matches any decision given by the Supreme Court, like Missouri v. McNeely (2013). These cases clarify that there have been plenty of circumstances that could lead to exigency and emphasize a few examples.

Exigent circumstances like these include:

  • The need for law enforcement to provide emergency assistance to a home occupant
  • A suspect for criminal activities was fleeing law enforcement or was considered to be armed and dangerous
  • Engagement in “hot pursuit,” defined as the chase of an escaped convict
  • The need to put out and/or investigate the cause of a fire
  • If evidence is at risk of being destroyed

These are only a few examples of cases where exigent circumstances came into play. Others that are not listed are up for interpretation by the court.

Motion to Suppress

There are instances in which warrantless searches have been conducted unlawfully and led to arrest. This is commonly seen in Ohio when drug charges are in play. Whenever you have been the victim of a search without a warrant, your first thought should be whether there has been any evidence that could be suppressed.

Suppressing evidence means excluding the use of certain pieces of evidence in court on the grounds that they were obtained unlawfully. A motion to suppress is typically only successful if the evidence was acquired through a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. Working with an experienced criminal lawyer is essential to proving that the search and seizure were illegal and not exigent.

Whenever you or someone you know has been arrested due to information or evidence acquired after an unwarranted search was conducted, you may be able to file a motion to suppress. Upon the dismissal of such evidence, your case gets stronger. This could ultimately result in lesser charges or having the case dropped due to procedural errors. It’s essential to know what your rights are so you do not get taken advantage of by law enforcement.