The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is designed to protect Americans from the illegal search and seizure of their homes, vehicles, and other property. Unfortunately, however, many Americans do not fully understand the Amendment and therefore spend precious time behind bars, paying fine and fees, losing their belongings, and living with criminal records that they should never have been convicted of under the Constitution.
Since police officers are not required to inform individuals of their rights concerning search and seizure, an alarming number of illegal searches and/ or seizures occur each year. While an experienced criminal defense attorney can more closely evaluate particular cases in order to help suspects determine whether or not their property was unlawfully searched or seized, it is wise for Americans to have a basic understanding of their rights under the Fourth Amendment.
Rights Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution
Unlawful search and seizure is a direct violation of an individual’s constitutional rights. Individuals should become aware of what is permissible and what is not so that they can exercise their rights accordingly. Police officers do not have the right to search the home, vehicle, or other property of individuals without a warrant except under certain circumstances.
- Consent Search: When individuals voluntarily give consent for a search, they are waiving their rights under the Fourth Amendment. When that occurs, anything incriminating that is discovered during the search is admissible as evidence that can be used against the defendant in court.
- Arrest Incident: When an individual is arrested, police have the right to perform a search of the person and his or her belongings.
- Plain View: In the event that there is something illegal or contraband in plain sight, police officers have the right to conduct a search.
- Probable Cause: If a police officer believes that a crime has been committed, or is about to be committed, the officer is entitled to perform a search.
- Exigent Circumstances: If an officer believes that he or she is at risk of danger, or that bystanders are at immediate risk, the officer may perform a search without a warrant as long as delaying the search would endanger the lives of the officer or others. Additionally, if the officer has probable cause to believe that evidence is about to be destroyed, the officer can lawfully perform a search without a warrant.
- Caretaker Rule: Property that is found and turned over to the police and abandoned property that is taken into police possession can legally be searched without a warrant. Not only can such a search help determine the owner of the property, but it can determine if the contents are a danger to the officer or others.
The Laws Surrounding the Fourth Amendment and Unlawful Search and Seizure can be Very Complicated
Although the details of the Fourth Amendment might seem pretty straightforward, in reality, they can be very complicated. Some circumstances that might impact the way that a lawful search and seizure is conducted include:
- Motels, Hotels, Rented Apartments, and Other Rented or Leased Property: Since a fee is being paid for the potential suspect to have use of the property, the actual property owner cannot give consent for the property to be searched or seized unless the property has been abandoned.
- Impaired Consent: A 1990 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court decided that an impaired individual can consent to the search as long as the facts that are available to the police officer warrant a person of “reasonable caution” to believe that the individual has authority over the property.
- Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine: Evidence that is obtained illegally cannot be used to discover further evidence.
Search and Seizure Authority Curbed by Recent Minnesota Supreme Court Rulings
While courts in the state of Minnesota have continuously construed article I, section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution as offering more protection against unlawful search and seizure than the Fourth Amendment, two cases were recently decided that will protect the rights of Minnesota residents even more.
In both of the cases, officers discovered drugs while performing searches on impounded vehicles. Both of the impoundments were later discovered to have been performed illegally, which means that the searches were conducted unlawfully. Under the law, any evidence that was obtained during these searches cannot be admitted into court. While the Fourth Amendment has been applied in both civil and criminal cases in United States Supreme Court rulings for years, it had not been decided whether the “exclusionary rule” applied to civil cases in Minnesota until recently, when these rulings were made. These previous rulings by lower courts, and will now send those cases back for further investigation.