We are all used to hearing about our Fourth Amendment rights as prescribed by the Constitution. The important condition in obtaining a warrant to conduct a search is “probable cause.” There has to be a compelling reason to believe that the person might possess something incriminating that a search would reveal.
But not all searches require a warrant. There are several situations in which officers can conduct a search without a warrant.
- They believe a suspect is in possession of something that could harm others.
- The suspect grants consent for the search.
- The suspect has been arrested.
- Something is in plain view.
Obviously, airport screening is a special situation. Potential terrorism endangers hundreds of lives when airliners are involved. So it is in the interest of public safety to search everybody that flies. This kind of search is called an administrative search exception. It would not be possible to obtain a warrant for everyone who flies, so everyone is searched even though there is no demonstrable probable cause. Lawsuits most often occur in this context when something illegal is found and prosecutors try to use it as evidence. Evidence gathered without probable cause can be thrown out.
I personally agree that it is appropriate to use the administrative search exception in situations like this because of the grave threat to human life. I also believe that people should be able to be prosecuted if illegal items are found, because consent to the search is implied by the fact that the suspect has entered the airport and attempted to board a plane, knowing they will be searched.
The Terry vs. Ohio decision states that officers may conduct a warrantless search if they have a reasonable belief that someone has or is about to commit a crime, or if they have a reasonable belief that the public's safety is endangered by this person. Sometimes this is referred to as "stop and frisk." For the same reason stated above concerning airport searches, I believe this ruling is appropriate. However, outside of the airport setting such a search must be well-justified by the officer.