California law protects residents from illegal search and seizure. This means that law enforcement cannot unlawfully search their person or property. Evidence cannot be seized without a proper search warrant or a legal exception that is recognized by courts. If police do not have a warrant or the situation does not meet the exception to the warrant requirement, then the prosecution may not be able to proceed with criminal charges.
Generally, police must have a search warrant when you have a legitimate expectation of privacy in the place being searched, or the property that is being searched. A reasonable expectation of privacy exists for those places that you control. This usually includes the trunk of your car, or your house. Law enforcement is prohibited from searching these areas without cause. This must be “probable cause,” knowledge of facts sufficient to support a reasonable belief.
There are certain situations in which the police may have the right to search or seize your property. These include the possession of a valid warrant, consent, probable cause, and no reasonable expectation of privacy. In order to obtain a search warrant, law enforcement must set forth a reasonable showing that there is evidence a particular person committed a crime, or that a crime was committed. Typically, if you have been lawfully arrested, you may be searched. For instance, law enforcement may conduct a pat-down search for weapons.
Police may request your consent in order to avoid securing a warrant. You do not have to consent to a search. Consent may occur if, for example, your spouse provided consent to a search of your home based on suspicion of a drug offense.
A reasonable expectation of privacy does not exist when you are in a public area. Your person and your property may not be protected in the same way. If you are in a restaurant, for example, and a security camera captures an illegal act, you may not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.