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Can police search someone's backyard without a warrant?

The 4th Amendment protects you from "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the government. Generally, this means police must have a warrant or probable cause to search you or your property.

Many people likely know that police need a warrant in most situations to search their home, but what about the backyard?

Exceptions to the warrant requirement

Under the 4th Amendment, most searches without a warrant are considered unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional. However, Iowa courts recognize a few exceptional circumstances where the police do not need authorization to search someone's property:

  • The property owner consents
  • Searches incident to arrest
  • Probable cause coupled with exigent circumstances
  • Evidence of a crime in plain view
  • Emergency aid

The phrase "exigent circumstances" means a reasonable person would believe entry without a warrant is necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence, harm to officers or other individuals, or the escape of a suspect.

What makes a search "unreasonable?"

Answering this question involves a two-step process. First, we have to determine whether someone had a reasonable expectation of privacy where they were searched. Then, the courts look at whether law enforcement violated that expectation.

So, do we have an expectation of privacy in our backyards?

In State v. Lewis, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed this very question. In that case, the defendant's home had a fenced-in yard and enclosed back porch, both of which the court found were private. The court pointed out that there was no evidence the area was open to the public.

Every case is different

In light of all this, in most cases someone's backyard would be considered an area with a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, it is important to keep in mind the exceptions above that could lead police to your back door. If police have charged you or a loved one with a crime based on a search of your backyard, it is best to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can guide you.

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