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When can the police search my house, apartment or dorm room? 
As a very general rule, police must have a warrant before they can search your residence. There are several exceptions to this rule that will allow police to search your residence without a warrant. The following exceptions will allow the police to search without a warrant:

Voluntary Consent: If the police receive proper consent to search, then a warrant is not required.

Who can provide consent? 
Consent can be obtained from either the person who's property is being searched (e.g. owner or resident) or from someone else that has "common authority" over the residence (e.g. a roommate). If you own the property or it is your apartment and you provide consent to search, then the police can search without a warrant. Likewise, if another person who doesn't own the property, but has "common authority" because they also live at the residence, or has control over the residence, provides consent, then the police can search the property. The consent from someone with "common authority" is valid even if it turns out that that person wasn't technically authorized to provide consent, if at the time the police obtained consent they reasonably believed the person had authority to provide consent. So, if someone provides consent to search your apartment because they tell the police they live there and therefore can consent to a search, and the police have no reason to believe the person is lying about living there, then the police can probably search your apartment. Of course, if the police have reason to believe that the person providing consent doesn't really have authority to consent to the search, then the police cannot search.

Do I have to know I have the right to refuse consent? 
No, the police are not required to tell you that you can refuse to allow them to search. However, they cannot tell you that you aren't allowed to refuse unless they have a warrant or probable cause to search. In other words, they cannot make you think you cannot refuse to allow them to search in order to trick you into thinking you have no option but to consent, unless they have a warrant or probable cause that would allow them to search without your consent.

Exigent circumstances
There are some situations that, because of their nature, make getting a warrant impracticable; therefore, when these situations exist, the police do not need to get a warrant to conduct a search. These situations include:

  1. A search conducted while in "hot pursuit" of a fleeing suspect.
  2. A search or seizure to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence.
  3. A search which occurs during the entry into a residence in order to prevent loss of life or property. This generally occurs when the police reasonably believe that someone inside the residence is in need of immediate help, so they enter the residence to provide assistance.

For the above exigent circumstances to apply, the police must have probable cause to believe that the exigent circumstances actually exist. The nature of the particular situation will determine how much and where the police can actually search. For instance, if they are searching for a fleeing suspect that they have probable cause to believe entered your home and is currently hiding there then they can enter your home without a warrant and search in places in your home where the suspect may be hiding as well as anywhere weapons may be found. Once the police find the suspect, the police are no longer allowed to continue searching without a warrant.

Plain view
Police officers can seize incriminating objects that are in "plain view" of the officer without a warrant. There are a few requirements that must be met for a police officer to use this exception though. First, when the officer first sees the object to be seized the officer must legally have a right to be where he or she is. In other words, the officer cannot trespass onto your property and use the "plain view" doctrine to seize your property since the officer did not have a right to be on your property when he or she noticed the property to be seized. Second, the officer must have a right to physically access the property to be seized. It is not enough that the officer can see the object to be seized from a place he or she has a right to be; the officer must also have a right to be where the object is located to seize it.

For instance, if an officer is walking along a public sidewalk, where he has a lawful right to be, and he glances through a home's window and notices drugs, he satisfies the first requirement of the plain view exception, but he still cannot seize the drugs because he does not have a right to go in the house. However, if the officer is lawfully in your house, because you let him or her in for whatever reason and the officer notices contraband in your house, then the officer may seize the contraband since he had a right to physically access the contraband since he had a right to be in the house. Third, the fact that the object to be seized is contraband or evidence of a crime must be immediately apparent when the officer observes it. The officer can not just seize your property under the plain view doctrine without the property clearly being evidence or contraband.

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