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Search and Seizure

Exceptions To Warrant Requirement

Administrative agencies may conduct warrantless searches of highly regulated industries, such as strip mining and food service. Federal and state statutes authorize warrantless, random drug testing of persons in sensitive positions, such as air traffic controllers, drug interdiction officers, railroad employees, and customs officials. In each of these types of searches, the Supreme Court has ruled that the need for public safety outweighs the countervailing privacy interests that would normally require a search warrant. However, a few lower federal courts have ruled that warrantless searches of public housing projects are unconstitutional, not withstanding the fact that residents of the public housings projects signed petitions supporting warrantless searches to rid their communities of drugs and weapons.

Nor may states pass a law requiring candidates for state political office to certify that they have taken a drug test and that the test result was negative without violating the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. In Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305, 117 S.Ct. 1295, 137 L.Ed.2d 513 (U.S. 1997), the state of Georgia failed to show a special need that was important enough to justify such drug testing and override the candidate's countervailing privacy interests, the Court said. Moreover, the Court found, the certification requirement was not well designed to identify candidates who violate anti-drug laws and was not a credible means to deter illicit drug users from seeking state office, since the Georgia law allowed the candidates to select the test date, and all but the prohibitively addicted could abstain from using drugs for a pretest period sufficient to avoid detection.

The Supreme Court has given law enforcement mixed signals over the constitutionality of warrantless motor vehicle checkpoints. The Court approved warrantless, suspicionless searches at roadside sobriety checkpoints. These searches must be carried out in some neutral, articulable way, such as by stopping every fifth car. However, a highway checkpoint program whose primary purpose is the discovery and interdiction of illegal narcotics violates the Fourth Amendment. In distinguishing between sobriety and drug interdiction checkpoints, the Court said that the sobriety checkpoints under review were designed to ensure roadway safety, while the primary purpose of the narcotics checkpoint under review had been to uncover evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, and, as such, the program contravened the Fourth Amendment. City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 121 S.Ct. 447, 148 L.Ed.2d 333 (U.S. 2000).

Warrant exceptions have been carved out by courts because requiring a warrant in certain situations would unnecessarily hamper law enforcement. For example, it makes little sense to require an officer to obtain a search warrant to seize contraband that is in plain view. Under the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement, the appropriateness of every warrantless search is decided on a case-by-case basis, weighing the defendant's privacy interests against the reasonable needs of law enforcement under the circumstances.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Roberts v. United States Jaycees to Secretary of StateSearch and Seizure - Overview, State Action, Reasonable Expectation Of Privacy, Probable Cause And Reasonable Suspicion, Arrest And Miranda