Police officers in Florida and around the country usually obtain warrants before searching vehicles or properties because the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable government search and seizure. The Constitution does not protect against unreasonable searches carried out by private investigators or other nongovernmental parties, but judges may still exclude items recovered by private parties who were working in collusion with law enforcement. The Fourth Amendment applies in Florida because the doctrine of incorporation makes the liberties guaranteed by the First through Fourteenth Amendments applicable in every state.
The expectation of privacy
Individuals must be able to establish that they had an expectation of privacy if they hope to prove that a search violated protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Homes, cars, businesses and the pockets of clothing are generally considered private, but home or business owners may lose their expectation of privacy if they regularly open parts of their property to the public. The private area of a home includes the structure and surrounding areas called the curtilage. Garbage placed in trash cans in this area is covered by the Fourth Amendment, but trash cans placed on the sidewalk for collection can be searched without a warrant.
Fourth Amendment exceptions
Illegal items like drugs or unregistered firearms can be seized by law enforcement if they are seen in plain sight even when there is an expectation of privacy. Seeing evidence of criminal activity in plain sight could also give police officers probable cause to conduct a more rigorous search. In addition to the plain sight exception, the courts have allowed warrantless police searches when the officers involved were responding to calls for help, pursuing a fleeing suspect and acting to thwart a crime in progress or prevent evidence from being destroyed. When police search without a warrant, experienced criminal defense attorneys may check official reports to see if one of these exceptions applies.
Waiving the right to privacy
The Fourth Amendment is a powerful shield against government overreach, but criminal suspects waive this right every day. Suspects cannot claim that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated when they gave police officers permission to look in their pockets, vehicles or homes.