The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by government officials, including the police. A seizure refers to the arrest or detention of a person by the government or police. While courts will group unreasonable searches and seizures as one, an unreasonable search can occur without anyone being detained.
In a legal context, a search is an inspection or physical invasion of a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. An example of this would be how pat-downs and security measures, such as metal detectors and airport scanners, can be used to search an individual. Generally speaking, a search brings to mind looking through a person’s property in order to find evidence of a crime. However, the term “search” can also refer to a phone tap, access to computers, or observation of a home or GPS locator.
Additionally, a reasonable expectation of privacy is subjective. What this means is that this expectation needs to be supported by what the public also largely considers to be private. An example of this would be if you were in a busy restaurant and stepped into a private room in order to make a phone call. There is a reasonable expectation of privacy; however, if you answer your phone at the table and talk loud enough for others to hear, there is no privacy expectation. Similarly, if you are in a private room but still speaking loud enough for others to hear, your expectation of privacy is unreasonable outside of the room.
A police house search occurs when the police enter a person’s residence in order to search for evidence of a crime. Generally speaking, police first need a search warrant in order to conduct a search of someone’s house. To reiterate, under the Fourth Amendment, people have a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches of their property, which includes their homes. Without a search warrant, police generally cannot conduct a house or property search, although there are some exceptions which will be further discussed later on.
What Is An Unreasonable Search? What Is An Illegal Search?
An unreasonable search occurs when law enforcement searches with no warrant, and no probable cause for requesting a search warrant. In short, probable cause exists when it is more likely than not that evidence of a crime can be found in the area that is being searched.
To reiterate, a search warrant is issued by a judge and gives police permission to search for specific evidence in a specific location. Searches without an issued warrant are generally considered to be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and as such any evidence found during these searches will generally not be used against a defendant in court.
There are a few exceptions that allow officers to search without a warrant:
- When a person consents, freely and voluntarily, to their property being searched;
- If the evidence is in plain sight of the officer, or of the public;
- If police are chasing someone;
- When a person is arrested, officers may search their body and immediate surroundings, but this is limited to searching for weapons;
- During a traffic stop when there is a reasonable belief that evidence and/or illegal items are present; and
- When police fear evidence being destroyed or people being harmed immediately in the amount of time it would take to first obtain a search warrant.
An illegal search is conducted without a warrant, or violates the terms of the warrant. An example of this would be how if the police search a person’s home without first securing a search warrant, it is generally considered to be an illegal search. Another example would be how if the police search an address different from the one listed in the warrant, it is most likely considered to be an illegal search.
What Can Police Search For In A Person’s Home?
When conducting a home search, police are limited to searching only for the specific items that are listed in the search warrant documents. What this means is that they cannot actively search for other evidence of other crimes. However, this standard can vary based on each individual criminal investigation.
Some examples of the most common objects of searches include:
- Weapons of any kind;
- Illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia;
- Illegal contraband, such as anything ranging from illegal chemicals to products that violate copyright laws;
- Evidence of prostitution, human trafficking, kidnapping, and other similar crimes;
- Documents associated with the commission of white-collar crime; and
- Stolen objects.
It is important to note that police can sometimes search a person’s computer and other electronic devices for evidence. Doing so also requires a search warrant, regardless of whether the electronic device is located in the person’s home.
Search and seizure laws can differ from state to state, so it is recommended that you speak with a local attorney if you have any questions regarding your state’s specific search and seizure laws.
What Should I Do If Police Conduct An Unreasonable Or Illegal Search?
As was previously discussed, a search may be prohibited when it is done in an unlawful manner, such as:
- Conducting a search without a warrant, especially when a warrant is necessary;
- A search in which a warrant was obtained, but the warrant was not executed properly and the good-faith exception does not apply to the circumstances;
- If the search is conducted in such a way that it violates an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy; and
- When the search does not fall under one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.
One common circumstance that is associated with unlawful searches would be illegal searches of a vehicle. In order to perform a legal search of a person’s vehicle, the police must first obtain a valid search warrant; additionally, a warrant will only be granted if the police have reasonable suspicion that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime.
While there are some exceptions to this general rule which allow the police to search the interior of the vehicle, as well as items that are in plain view inside the vehicle, police will not be permitted to search locked containers and/or closed personal belongings without a warrant. Additionally, they will not be able to search locked containers that clearly do not hold the contraband they are looking for.
An example of this would be if the police are conducting a warrantless search of a vehicle, and they are looking for a stolen weapon. If the police then open a sealed jewelry box on the passenger seat that could only hold one ring, such a search would most likely be deemed unlawful.
To reiterate, a violation of the Fourth Amendment on a criminal level would result in nothing more than the possible exclusion of evidence at trial. Some circumstances may still allow for evidence to be introduced, even if an individual right was violated. However, a claim can be filed against the police in civil court for damages.
Do I Need A Lawyer For A Police House Search?
If you believe your 4th Amendment rights have been violated, contact a criminal lawyer. An experienced and local attorney can help determine whether your rights have been violated, and what the remedies might be. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.