Right up there in a list of the most important Amendments to the United States Constitution is the Fourth Amendment. It states that no person should be violated by a warrantless or unreasonable search and seizure of themselves or their property. If the police or a government agency doesn’t have a court-approved warrant, they cannot kick down a door and start rooting around. This amendment protects the groundwork of our privacy, which we value very highly in this country.
However, the Fourth Amendment is not the end-all, be-all when it comes to search and seizure laws in America. The key word in the legal definition is “unreasonable.” According to law enforcement and criminal justice courts, there are many times when a search and seizure is unwarranted but not unreasonable.
Here are a few of the most prominent times when a warrantless search could be justified by the law or in court:
- No expectation of privacy: Evidence found in an openly public place is not protected by the Fourth Amendment because no “search” is necessary to seize it. For example, a person sitting on a park bench using an illegal drug can be arrested and have their pockets searched because they should have reasonably known they were not in a private location.
- Private security guards: The Fourth Amendment limits law enforcement or government agents. A private security staff member is neither. Any evidence found after a search and seizure conducted by a private entity is admissible in criminal court because it was obtained by administrative, not legal, action. For example, a security guard at a movie theater can demand to look in a person’s bag before entrance; if there is an illegal substance in the bag, they can detain the patron and call the police.
- In plain sight: Evidence a police officer sees in plain sight can generally be seized without warrant, so long as the officer was acting within the constraints of the law when the evidence was seen. For example, during a traffic stop for a broken taillight, a police officer sees an open, half-empty bottle of whisky in the passenger seat and smells alcohol on the driver’s breath; the officer can legally conduct a search and seizure because evidence of illegal activity required no invasive search to discover.
- For protection: If an officer of the law believes that they, someone else, or evidence could be in immediate danger of harm or destruction, they can conduct a warrantless search. For a first example, when someone is arrested for any reason, their clothing can be patted down to look for weapons. In a second example, if a person is running from the police and dashes into their home and shuts the door, officers may forcefully enter and search the entire home, as evidence of the crime could be anywhere and could have been destroyed if the police waited to gain entry with a warrant.
- Impoundment: If a car is impounded at a police lot for any reason, it can be searched thoroughly in order to inventory its contents. Any illegal contraband or evidence of other crimes found during the inventory search is admissible, in most situations, in court.
When a Search is Unconstitutional
If you ever think that the police are conducting a truly unconstitutional search, seizure, or detainment, do not resist. Your interference or protests will not influence the officers to stop, could be seen as the crime of resisting arrest or interfering with police business, and could ultimately lead to your injury. Remember your right to remain silent and tell the police you do not want to speak until your attorney is present.
As soon as you can, contact me, Plano Criminal Defense Attorney Mac Morris, and let me know what happened. I have been representing the criminally accused for more than 20 years, have personally handled 500+ jury trials, and have been able to have nearly 1,000 cases close with a dismissal or reduction. Schedule your free consultation today so we can get started on your defense after an unlawful search and seizure.