Email or Call (215) 564-0644

    Search & Seizure of Drugs or Guns in Pennsylvania Criminal Cases – Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

    Under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, law enforcement is required to obtain a warrant before conducting a search or seizure of persons or property, including homes, cars, etc. However, this rule is swallowed by its many exceptions: emergency situations or exigent circumstances, plain view, search incident to arrest, consent to search, automobile searches.

    Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

    In this legal article, our experienced Philadelphia criminal lawyer discusses the most common exceptions to the warrant requirement:

    • emergency or exigent circumstances,
    • plain view,
    • search incident to arrest,
    • consent, and
    • automobile searches.

    For more info about Pennsylvania criminal law, visit the Philadelphia Criminal Law Library.

    Top Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer

    Philadelphia criminal lawyer David Nenner speaks with reporters. Nov. 29, 2017 *Photo credit –

    Emergency/Exigent Circumstances

    Police officers are allowed to enter property or conduct a search if there’s an emergency need or exigent circumstance. The most common examples involve entering a home to prevent the destruction of evidence or entering a home to prevent an assault. For example, a police officer is conducting a routine patrol when he hears screaming and multiple gunshots from a home. The officer could enter the home to render aid.

    Plain View

    When a police officer is carrying out their duties or is lawfully present on property, anything illegal the officer views in plain sight can be seized. For example, a police officer is responding to a theft at an apartment. When the officer is invited into the home to take information for a police report, the officer sees a gun lying next to drug paraphernalia. The officer can arrest the occupant and seize the gun and drug paraphernalia.

    Search Incident to Arrest

    When a police officer arrests an individual, the individual and their personal effects may be searched not only for safety reasons, but also for inventory purposes. For example, a police officer arrests an individual after witnessing a drug transaction on the street. The officer searches the individual’s pockets and finds a gun in a jacket pocket. The gun can be validly seized.


    Many individuals who are being questioned by police will consent to entry or search of their property, including a home or car. It is actually very common for someone to consent to search even if they have illegal items in their possession. The fear of saying no to an officer is often enough to induce someone into consenting.

    Related: Pennsylvania Search & Seizure Law in Criminal Drug & Gun Cases in Philadelphia – Collective Knowledge Doctrine [What’s the collective knowledge doctrine and when does it apply in criminal drug and gun cases in Pennsylvania? Officers in the same unit or part of the same investigation share collective knowledge, even if there’s no evidence that one officer tells another officer about some critical aspect of a case. This applies to all search and seizure cases including stop and frisk, emergency or exigent circumstances, etc.]

    Automobile Searches

    Because cars are by their very nature, mobile and any evidence in a car can be destroyed or moved, courts have carved out a large exception to the warrant requirement. Car searches and seizures of illegal items such as drugs or guns are some of the most common issues raised in motions to suppress evidence. Unfortunately, warrantless automobile searches are permitted if a police officer has probable cause that an occupant has committed a crime or that evidence of a crime will be found in the car.

    A Brief Note About Stop & Frisk

    The stop and frisk doctrine is a decades old legal rule that allows police officers to conduct brief pat downs when stopping or questioning an individual. However, it’s not an actual exception to the warrant requirement because there’s no search or seizure occurring. Rather, the rule allows a police officer to conduct a brief pat down, but only if the officer has reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, i.e., the individual being stopped or questioned is armed or dangerous. Unfortunately, Philadelphia is notorious for these types of stops and for racial disparity in the treatment of African American men.

    It’s important to note that criminal law with respect to search and seizure is very complex. There are dozens of nuances or sub rules about the exceptions, when they apply, and when they don’t apply. More importantly, they are highly fact-specific. In addition, the law is always changing. Courts routinely limit or expand an exception. It is crucial to have an experienced criminal lawyer review a criminal case to determine whether any search or seizure was legal.

    Criminal Law Firm in Philadelphia – FREE CONSULTATION

    Our Philadelphia criminal law firm offers free consultations for major drug charges such as murder or drug possession or dealing. Call (215) 564-0644.

    David S. Nenner

    "Top Rated Criminal Defense Lawyer"

    Not guilty on 1st Degree MURDER CHARGE (dec. 2022, Pottsville, Pa)

    Mr. Nenner's client faced first degree murder, third degree murder and various other charges. The Commonwealth alleged that Mr. Whitted stabbed and killed a driver after an incident at a red light in West Brunswick Township. Throughout the trial, Mr. Nenner argued...

    MURDER, Att. Murder CHARGES – Negotiated Significantly Lower prison sentence (Feb. 2022, PHILA)

    Mr. Anderson faced murder and attempted murder charges after an incident in Northeast Philadelphia involving the shooting death of Anderson’s sister’s boyfriend and the boyfriend’s roommate who was shot 5 times and survived. The decedent had previously beaten the...


    The Commonwealth alleged that Mr. Shelton shot and seriously injured a male in a bar in North Philadelphia called Circles. There was video of the shooting which happened outside the bar. However, Mr. Nenner presented witnesses who testified that the person in the bar...


    Mr. Nenner's client was charged with multiple crimes (murder, conspiracy, aggravated assault, robbery, etc.) after a shooting death occurred at a gambling house in North Philadelphia. At trial, Mr. Nenner successfully presented a self-defense argument and convinced...


    Mr. Nenner’s client was charged with murder and gun charges in Philadelphia. The client was accused of shooting and killing another male on Arch Street near the 5600 block of Ithan Street in Philadelphia. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty after deliberating...

    Drug Charges in Philadelphia PA State Court – Possession of a Controlled Substance

    In most criminal drug cases in Philadelphia, there are two common charges or offenses: Possession of a Controlled Substance and Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Deliver. In addition to these drug charges, there are other drug related charges, such...

    Drug Charges in Philadelphia PA State Court – What is “Possession”

    Page last reviewed and updated: October 20, 2019 One of the most common types of criminal state (PA) cases in Philadelphia is possession of drugs. Possession of a Controlled Substance (PCS) and Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Deliver (PWID) often...

    Pennsylvania Second Degree Murder (AKA: Felony Murder) Law

    Philadelphia criminal lawyer David S. Nenner discusses the current status of second degree murder law in Pennsylvania. This is also known as the felony murder rule. Get info about PA court decisions and the agency theory. Not every case of death during the commission of a felony will result in a second degree murder conviction in PA.

    Philadelphia Murder Cases – Police Investigation Tactics

    Questioning Police Officer Tactics in Philadelphia Murder Cases Within the last 10 years, there have been several murder Philadelphia criminal cases in which the accused individuals were acquitted of the crimes. In these cases, the individuals spent months, if not...

    Murder Charges in Pennsylvania – Murder Law in Pennsylvania

    An explanation of Pennsylvania murder laws including Section 2502. What is murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree and murder in the third degree. Get a summary of the definitions under Pennsylvania criminal law.