Last month, in State v. Dobbins, the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed a defendant’s convictions for manufacturing methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, unlawful disposal of methamphetamine waste, possession of a schedule two controlled substance, and possession of a schedule four controlled substance even though the police officers entered and searched the defendant’s camper without a search warrant.

Like many of our clients who are charged with drug offenses in the Myrtle Beach, Conway, Charleston, and Columbia areas, Dobbins probably thought that the police could not enter his home without a search warrant. The trial court and Court of Appeals disagreed.

When do Police Need a Search Warrant?

The Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement was intended to protect our homes and property from unreasonable searches and seizure by government agents. The idea is that we will have a “neutral” judge determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to justify invading a person’s home or taking a person’s property. Like Dobbins, most Fourth Amendment search and seizure opinions begin their analysis by recognizing this:

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures through its exclusionary rule. U.S. CONST. amend IV. “A search compromises the individual interest in privacy; a seizure deprives the individual of dominion over his or her person or property.” Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 133 (1990). An individual in a private residence normally expects privacy, free of governmental intrusion not authorized by a warrant, and society recognizes this as a justifiable expectation. State v. Herring, 387 S.C. 201, 209, 692 S.E.2d 490, 494 (2009). As such, a warrantless search is inherently unreasonable, and thus, it violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Johnson, 410 S.C. at 18, 763 S.E.2d at 41.

The reality, however, is that the exceptions swallowed the rule long ago. Over time, the courts have carved out so many exceptions to the search warrant requirement that, more often than not, the police do not need a warrant if they are familiar with the appellate opinions and know the right words to say in court.

Exigent Circumstances and Plain View

“I think I hear a baby crying….” is the way many attorneys jokingly describe the exigent circumstances exception to the search warrant requirement. The exception does away with the warrant requirement when the officer testifies that there was a situation that required immediate action such as where someone may be hurt or evidence may be destroyed.

In Dobbins, the police went to the defendant’s camper looking for someone else. They did not have a search warrant that authorized them to enter his home to search for the wanted person or to search for drugs. However, police can approach and knock on a person’s door without a warrant. Once at the door, the officer testified that he smelled the unmistakable odor of a meth lab and that they then had to force their way into the home to prevent the destruction of evidence.

Once they were inside the home, the officers testified that they saw meth and paraphernalia for cooking meth in plain view on the counters and in the bathroom. The plain view exception allows officers to seize contraband that they can see in plain view without first seeking a search warrant.

Can I Get My Case Dismissed Because the Officers Did Not Have a Search Warrant?

Maybe. If there is a Fourth Amendment violation, any evidence that is seized is “the fruit of the poisonous tree” and must be excluded as evidence. But, if the officer testifies that he or she smelled drugs like meth cooking or marijuana, the court will almost always deny your motion to dismiss based on a failure to get a search warrant.

There are usually multiple issues in any Fourth Amendment case, however. A thorough investigation and careful review of the officers’ reports, witness statements, and video from the incident scene will often turn up defenses that can be raised at trial. You can schedule a free consultation to discuss the facts of your case with our Myrtle Beach drug defense lawyers by calling (843) 488-5000 or filling out our online form.

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