The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits when law enforcement in Massachusetts can intrude on people’s privacy. Generally, police need a judge to approve a search warrant before searching a person’s property. In the absence of a search warrant, the law authorizes police to conduct reasonable searches. The concepts of consent, exigent circumstances and plain view determine what makes a search without a warrant reasonable and therefore lawful.

Consent describes when a person grants police permission to search a building, vehicle or other location. An individual must consent willingly to the police request for the search to be valid. Additionally, the law restricts the police to the location that they initially gained consent to search. Someone who says that police may search the garage is not giving permission for police to search the whole house.

Exigent circumstances arise in urgent situations that make asking for a judge’s approval impractical. A 911 call that alerts police to gunfire in an apartment represents a situation when police could enter the home without permission on the basis of possible criminal activity. Even when police possess a search warrant, they might have the legal right to conduct searches beyond the scope of the warrant if they see evidence of a crime in plain view.

The lawfulness of evidence collected outside the purview of a search warrant might be open to interpretation. A person accused of a crime might ask an attorney to evaluate police conduct in effort to identify violations of Constitutional rights. This process might contribute to a criminal defense strategy that improves the person’s position in court. Legal support like this has the potential to reduce the impact of an arrest on someone’s life.