The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects you from unlawful or unreasonable search and seizure. Sounds good, but what does that actually mean? Over the course of the last 200 years or so, many courts across the country, along with the United States Supreme Court, have all made decisions that end up defining what this means for you, now, in 2017.
Because there is some interpretation that can be made even now, one of the first things that most criminal defense attorneys do is ensure that any searches and seizures that affect a particular case were done properly and did not violate your constitutional rights.
It's a delicate balancing act
The courts have been trying to balance your constitutional rights with the need that the government has to preserve the public safety. This means that, over the decades and centuries, the question of what is a reasonable and lawful search depends largely on location.
You are a location
Law enforcement officers can't just come up to you and demand to search you. In the absence of a search warrant, an officer can only search you if there is reason to believe that a crime was, or will be, committed. The officer can only stop you for a brief period of time to either dispel or confirm his or her suspicions.
Your home is another location
Without a search warrant, a search of your home may not reach the reasonable requirement on its face. However, exceptions do apply.
- An officer may seize items left out where he or she can readily see them, which the law considers to be in plain view.
- You allow the officer to search by providing consent.
- If the officer places you under arrest, he or she may conduct a search.
- The officer has probable cause, a valid legal reason, to perform the search.
In some cases, the circumstances require officers to conduct a search of your home. Such exigent circumstances could include something such as gunfire from within the home, unexplained smoke or some other situation in which life and property are at risk.
Your car qualifies as a location, too
Traffic stops can be tricky. An officer needs reasonable suspicion that you violated a traffic law or that some criminal activity may be taking place in order to initiate a traffic stop. However, he or she can only conduct a search of your vehicle under the following circumstances:
- An officer can pat you down just to make sure you are not holding anything dangerous.
- A narcotics dog can walk around your vehicle.
- An officer can search your vehicle with probable cause.
- Officers may conduct sobriety checkpoints.
- Officers may make short stops at highway checkpoints that request cooperation from a driver after a recent highway crime.
- Routine searches occur often at the country's border crossings.
What law enforcement officers cannot do is conduct stops and searches as fishing expeditions under the guise of highway checkpoints looking for illegal drugs.
Was your search legal?
Taking the above into consideration, answering that question may only take place after a thorough review of the circumstances. If the law enforcement officers, agents or investigators conducting the search did not have a valid search warrant, and the circumstances do not fit into any of the scenarios under which a court would allow a warrantless search, then it may not have been a lawful and reasonable search.
Even though a California court granted the search warrant, you may still call into question the facts provided to the court in order to obtain the warrant. If it turns out that an officer violated your Fourth Amendment rights at any point during the process, any case filed against you by prosecutors may fall apart. Considering that your future and freedom may be in jeopardy, you may want to enlist some assistance in making these and other determinations about your case.