What Are My 4th Amendment Rights?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. It requires law enforcement to first obtain a search warrant before a search may be performed.

It also sets requirements for issuing warrants, which must be issued by a judge or magistrate, to lawfully search and seize evidence while investigating criminal activity. Warrants must be justified by probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and must describe the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

Search

Initially, the Fourth Amendment focused on a person’s property rights. A search has occurred when the government physically intrudes on "persons, houses, papers, or effects" for the purpose of obtaining information.

Fourth Amendment protections expanded significantly in 1967 with Katz v. United States. In Katz, the Supreme Court expanded that focus to embrace an individual's right to privacy.

Now, this two-part test is used to determine whether a search has occurred:

  1. a person "has exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy"; and
  2. society is prepared to recognize that this expectation is (objectively) reasonable.

The Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to information that is voluntarily shared with third parties.

Seizure

The amendment protects against unreasonable seizure of property or persons. A seizure of property occurs when there is "some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in that property", such as when police officers take personal property away from an owner to use as evidence, or when they participate in an eviction.

Exceptions to a warrant

Though the amendment states that law enforcement must first obtain a search warrant, there may be exceptions to this rule in certain circumstances.

Consent

Consent searches are the most common type of warrantless searches. The doctrine states that a warrant isn’t required when the person(s) gives consent to the search.

There are exceptions to the rule and factors to consider, including the scope of the consent given, whether consent is voluntarily given, and whether an individual has the right to consent to a search of another's property.

Most people aren’t aware that they don’t have to consent to a search. However, a consent search is still valid even if the police don’t inform you that you have the right to refuse the search. Always decline to submit to a search.

Search incident to arrest

While conducting a lawful arrest, an officer may search an individual's person and their immediate surroundings for weapons or other items that may harm the officer. If a person is arrested in or near a vehicle, the officer has the right to search the passenger compartment of that vehicle.

Plain view

According to the plain view doctrine, if an officer is lawfully present, he may seize objects that are in "plain view."

However, the officer must have had probable cause to believe that the object is contraband before it may be searched or seized.

Vehicle exception

The Supreme Court has held that individuals in automobiles have a reduced expectation of privacy, because:

  1. vehicles generally do not serve as residences or repositories of personal effects, and
  2. vehicles "can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought."

Vehicles cannot be randomly stopped and searched; there must be reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity, a moving violation, or equipment violation.

If a vehicle is stopped by law enforcement with reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity, they must still then have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed before officers may search the vehicle. Items in plain sight may be seized and areas that could potentially hide weapons may be searched.

However, the search is limited to the driver of the vehicle unless there is probable cause to search the passengers.

Following an arrest, a law enforcement officer needs a warrant before searching a motor vehicle unless:

  1. They have reason to believe that evidence for the crime for which the person is being arrested will be found in the vehicle, and the vehicle could be removed from the scene.
  2. When the driver is being arrested and the automobile is being impounded, an inventory search is performed to verify the contents of the vehicle. Evidence is often found under this scenario.
  3. As stated above, if the driver consents to a search. Generally, the police will ask if you will allow them to search the vehicle. Never consent to a search.
  4. Also as stated above, while conducting a lawful arrest, an officer may search an individual's person and their immediate surroundings for weapons or other items that may harm the officer. If a person is arrested in or near a vehicle, the officer has the right to search the passenger compartment of that vehicle.

Exigent circumstances

Law enforcement officers may also conduct warrantless searches if they reasonably believe that evidence may be destroyed or others may be placed in danger in the time it would take to secure the warrant.

This includes circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that immediate action is necessary to prevent physical harm to the officers or other persons, destruction or removal of relevant evidence, escape of the suspect, or some other consequence in which there isn’t time to secure a warrant.

Events that may justify a warrantless search include,

Hot pursuit

The police may enter a dwelling without a warrant if they were in hot pursuit of the suspect.

Border search exception

Searches conducted at the United States border or an international airport may be conducted without a warrant or probable cause under the border search exception.

Most border searches may be conducted entirely at random, without any level of suspicion, pursuant to U.S. Customs and Border Protection search authority. Information on a traveler's electronic materials, including personal files on a laptop computer, may also be searched at random.

However, searches that intrude upon a traveler's personal dignity and privacy, such as strip and body cavity searches, must be supported by reasonable suspicion.

The exclusionary rule

When a search violates the Fourth Amendment, the exclusionary rule holds that evidence obtained is generally inadmissible at criminal trials.

“Fruit of the poisonous tree”

Evidence discovered as a later result of an illegal search may also be inadmissible as “fruit of the poisonous tree” unless it inevitably would have been discovered by legal means.

Some defendants believe that if they can show that a search was illegal, the entire case must be dismissed. However, if a prosecutor has enough other evidence to prove the defendant guilty, the case can continue. It is only the evidence obtained illegally, and that evidence that is the fruit of the poisonous tree that will be excluded or suppressed at trial.

If you have questions about your Fourth Amendment rights, contact the team at Bruno Law today.

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