Search and Seizure Laws

How much do you know about the Fourth Amendment?

Thanks to high school civics, the vast majority of people not only have an understanding of the structure and duties of the federal government, but also the protections extended to U.S. citizens via the Bill of Rights.

Indeed, most people know that they are entitled to some level of protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement officials thanks to the Fourth Amendment. However, they may not be entirely sure what this really means or how it works in the real world.

What does the Fourth Amendment actually say?

The text of the Fourth Amendment declares that the people’s right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

How does the law define a search?

A search is considered to have occurred under the Fourth Amendment when agents or employees of the government violate an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy. It’s important to understand that a search means more than just law enforcement officials rooting through a home or car, but can also include body searches, electronic surveillance and sniff inspections by police dogs.

What then qualifies as a reasonable expectation of privacy?

The determination as to whether a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy is not subjective. Rather, it is based on a purely objective determination of whether we, as a society, are willing to recognize that a certain expectation of privacy exists and is reasonable.

For example, it’s long been recognized that, absent certain circumstances, warrantless searches of privately owned property violate society’s reasonable expectations of privacy and are therefore prohibited under the Fourth Amendment. Conversely, it’s long been recognized that warrantless searches of abandoned property do not violate society’s reasonable expectations of privacy and are therefore permitted under the Fourth Amendment.

Consider speaking with an experienced legal professional if you have been charged with a crime and believe that your rights have been violated in any way by law enforcement officials. Call our office at 770-887-1209 or use the contact form below to speak with an attorney at Banks, Stubbs & McFarland about your case. 

How does the law define a seizure?

In the context of the Fourth Amendment, a seizure takes place when, based on the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would believe that they were neither free to ignore the presence of law enforcement officials nor free to leave of their own volition.

Are there any telltale signs of a seizure?

Case law dictates that two basic criteria must be satisfied in order for the actions of law enforcement officials to be classified as a seizure. First, the officer must demonstrate some sort of authority such as brandishing handcuffs or a weapon, or using physical force. Indeed, demanding or harsh speech can also qualify.

Second, you must actually submit to this demonstration of authority, meaning you don’t just walk away.

Having established what constitutes a search and a seizure, where does a warrant come into play?

In general, the Fourth Amendment dictates that searches and seizures conducted without a warrant are unreasonable and therefore illegal, meaning evidence secured would be excluded from any criminal proceedings.

As such, a law enforcement official must typically appear before a judge or magistrate, and demonstrate that probable cause for a search or seizure exists.

The judge or magistrate will then consider whether this is true based on the totality of the circumstances and, if so, issue the warrant. Of course, there are exceptions to this warrant requirement.

If you have been charged with a felony or misdemeanor, and believe that your rights have been violated in any way by law enforcement officials, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional.

How does the law define probable cause?

While the text of the Fourth Amendment does not provide an exact definition of probable cause, the term has been fleshed out by the Supreme Court of the United States in multiple cases over the years.

Probable cause exists wherever there is a reasonable basis for believing that 1) evidence of a crime can be found in a particular location or 2) a crime might have been committed. This determination of reasonableness, in turn, is made by examining the totality of the circumstances.

Are there exceptions to the warrant requirement?

There are certain scenarios in which law enforcement officials do not need to secure a warrant to execute a search or bring an individual into custody.

Some of these exceptions include:

  • Consensual searches
  • Searches incident to valid arrests
  • Brief investigatory searches (i.e., Terry stops)
  • Items seized in plain view (i.e., contraband sitting with sight of a law enforcement official)
  • Exigent circumstances (i.e., preserve evidence, prevent escape, etc.)

If you believe that your rights under the Fourth Amendment have been violated in any way by law enforcement officials, please consider speaking with an experienced legal professional who can determine what happened and take the necessary actions.