In the context of criminal investigations, search and seizure procedures are primarily regulated by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Fourth Amendment amendment fundamentally ensures that all U.S. citizens possess the right to be shielded from unreasonable searches and/or seizures conducted by law enforcement. These protections extend to their property, personal belongings, physical bodies, and other areas where a “reasonable expectation of privacy” is present.
Generally, this encompasses locations such as an individual’s home, other properties that they own or inhabit, or places where they have permission to stay as overnight guests (e.g., hotels or friends’ houses). The law may also extend to specific types of property or personal belongings that one solely possesses but does not own.
What is a Warrantless Search?
A warrantless search is a search executed by law enforcement officers without first obtaining a search warrant from a judge.
In the majority of cases, warrantless searches are deemed illegal. However, there are certain circumstances in which conducting a search without a warrant may be justifiable.
Examples of situations where the police may perform a warrantless search include:
- Hot pursuit: If a suspect is fleeing from the police, the officers may perform a warrantless search to apprehend the suspect and prevent their escape.
- Risk of loss or destruction of evidence: If there is a risk that evidence will be lost or destroyed, the police may perform a warrantless search to secure the evidence before it is lost or destroyed. For example, if the police suspect that a suspect is about to flush drugs down the toilet, they may enter the suspect’s home without a warrant to prevent the destruction of evidence.
- Plain view: If the police observe evidence in plain view during a lawful activity, such as a traffic stop or a knock-and-talk, they may seize the evidence without a warrant.
- Consent: If the police have received voluntary consent from either the person being searched or the owner of the property being searched, they may perform a warrantless search. For example, if the police ask for permission to search a suspect’s vehicle, and the suspect agrees to the search, the police may conduct the search without a warrant.
- Incident to a lawful arrest, Terry stop, or automobile search: If the police conduct a lawful arrest, Terry stop, or automobile search, they may perform a warrantless search incident to that activity. For example, if the police arrest a suspect, they may search the suspect and the immediate area to ensure officer safety and to prevent the destruction of evidence.
What is an Illegal Search?
An illegal search is a search conducted in one of the following ways:
- Without a search warrant: If the police perform a search without a search warrant when one is required, it is an illegal search. For example, if the police enter a person’s home without a warrant and search their belongings, it is an illegal search.
- Not falling under warrant exceptions: If the search does not fall under one of the warrant exceptions, it is an illegal search. For instance, if the police perform a search without consent, probable cause, or exigent circumstances, and it does not fall under any of the exceptions, it is an illegal search.
- Breach of reasonable expectation of privacy: If the search is performed in a manner that breaches an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, it is an illegal search. For example, if the police use a thermal imaging device to scan a person’s home, which reveals intimate details of the person’s private life, it is an illegal search as it violates the person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Another example is when the police perform a strip search on an individual, who is not a suspect in a violent crime, without a reasonable belief that the person is carrying contraband or weapons.
What is the Exclusionary Rule?
Evidence acquired as a result of an illegal search is typically inadmissible in a court of law. This is due to the “exclusionary rule,” which essentially serves to safeguard citizens from having evidence obtained illegally used against them in criminal trials.
The exclusionary rule applies to all evidence that is obtained in violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights, which protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. This includes evidence that is obtained without a warrant, without probable cause, or without consent.
The purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter police misconduct and to safeguard citizens’ constitutional rights. If evidence obtained illegally is allowed to be used in a criminal trial, it could encourage law enforcement officers to engage in unconstitutional practices, such as performing warrantless searches or seizures.
The exclusionary rule has some exceptions, such as the “good faith” exception, which allows the use of evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment if the police officers acted in good faith and believed that their actions were legal. If the prosecution can prove that the evidence would have been discovered even if the illegal search had not occurred, the evidence may be admissible in court.
Can the Police Search My Car?
Law enforcement officers are generally allowed to search a person’s vehicle if they have procured a valid search warrant. The police must possess reasonable suspicion that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime to obtain the search warrant.
However, there are specific situations in which the police can search a car without first obtaining a search warrant. In these cases, they must first establish “probable cause” to stop and search the individual’s vehicle. If probable cause exists, they may pull the car over and search for items that can be utilized as evidence.
If the police do not have a search warrant, the warrantless search will be limited to the vehicle’s interior and items in plain view. Law enforcement officers are not allowed to search closed personal belongings, such as locked containers, that clearly do not contain the type of evidence they are seeking.
For example, if the police are looking for a set of stolen golf clubs, they cannot search a person’s bag or purse found in a car that is too small to hold a set or single golf club.
Should I Hire a Lawyer for Issues Related to Search and Seizure?
Apart from the general principles mentioned earlier, there are various exceptions or variations to the rules governing constitutional searches and seizures. These laws can also change based on the state’s statutes where the crime is being investigated, as well as the specific circumstances surrounding each search or seizure incident.
Therefore, if you have any concerns or questions regarding a search or seizure, it’s worthwhile to seek legal advice from a local criminal defense attorney.
A seasoned criminal defense attorney can determine whether the police followed proper legal procedures during the search or seizure in question. If the police did not adhere to the appropriate protocols, an attorney could assist you in suppressing any unlawfully obtained evidence.
An attorney can clarify the relevant laws in your jurisdiction, discuss the potential outcome of your case, and identify any defenses that may be available to you. They can also help you prepare legal documents for your case and provide representation on your behalf in court.
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