Section 3.4: Search Warrant Exceptions

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

While the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution establishes the general rule that searches and seizures should be conducted under the authority of a search warrant, there are several exceptions to this rule.

These exceptions are justified on various grounds, from protecting officer safety to balancing public interest considerations. Each of these exceptions, which we will explore in this section, comes with their specific conditions and requirements.

Plain View

The first of these exceptions is the “plain view” doctrine. This exception permits law enforcement officers to seize evidence of a crime without a search warrant if such evidence is in their plain view during a lawful observation. The Supreme Court, in the landmark case Horton v. California (1990), held that the “plain view” doctrine applies when the officer is lawfully present at the location where they see the evidence, the item’s incriminating nature is immediately apparent, and the officer has a lawful right of access to the object itself.

Exigent Circumstances

Exigent circumstances form another significant exception to the warrant requirement. The exigent circumstances exception allows law enforcement to enter a structure without a search warrant when they reasonably believe that people may be in immediate danger, evidence may be destroyed, or a suspect may escape. The Supreme Court outlined these grounds in Brigham City v. Stuart (2006). However, it is important to note that what constitutes an “exigent circumstance” can often depend on the specific facts and circumstances of each situation.

Hot Pursuit

Related to exigent circumstances is the exception of “hot pursuit.” This exception typically applies when police officers are in active or immediate pursuit of a suspect who they believe has committed a crime, and the suspect enters a private space. In United States v. Santana (1976), the Supreme Court ruled that police officers in “hot pursuit” of a suspect believed to have committed a felony may enter a residence without a warrant to effect an arrest.

Administrative Inspections

The Fourth Amendment also makes allowances for “administrative inspections” or “administrative searches.” These are searches conducted by municipal or government agents, such as health inspectors or fire marshals, to enforce regulatory standards relating to public health and safety. The Supreme Court, in Camara v. Municipal Court (1967), held that these inspections, although they may take place without a warrant or probable cause, must still satisfy a test of reasonableness.

Consent Searches of Premises

A search may also be conducted without a warrant if the individual in question freely and voluntarily consents to the search. Known as “consent searches,” these types of searches are grounded on the principle of waiver – a person may choose to waive their Fourth Amendment protections. The voluntariness of the consent is what is essential here and is a question of fact based on the totality of circumstances (Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 1973).

Schools & Other Special Searches

Finally, the Supreme Court has carved out exceptions for searches conducted in schools and similar settings. In New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), the court held that school officials could search a student without a warrant if they have “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school.”

In conclusion, the framework of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is marked by the tension between the individual’s right to privacy and society’s need for effective law enforcement. The exceptions to the warrant requirement reflect this tension and signify the law’s effort to strike a balance between these two crucial concerns.


  • Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006).
  • Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523 (1967).
  • Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990).
  • New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985).
  • Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973).
  • United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38 (1976).
Modification History

File Created:  08/06/2018

Last Modified:  07/15/2023

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