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A Basic Primer on Search & Seizure Laws

By Hager & Schwartz, P.A.

February 22, 2018

Most people know that when law enforcement want to search you or your home, you have the right to tell them to go get a warrant. But what does that actually mean? To put it simple, it means you are exercising your right to privacy that’s granted to you by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment places heavy restrictions on law enforcement and government authorities, preventing you from being randomly or unlawfully searched in hopes of finding evidence of a crime.

While this means that you can’t be searched randomly, authorities can still search you if they obtain the right permissions or the circumstances warrant it. On this blog, we’ll explain your Fourth Amendment rights in detail and give you a better clue as to how they actually protect you.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution

The Fourth Amendment reads as follows: “The right of the people 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.”

To put it more simply, the Constitution gives you the following:

  • The right to privacy in your home, possessions, car, or even on yourself
  • Protection from a search by law enforcement or authorities without “probable cause.”
  • Protection from a warrant being issued against you unless authorities can demonstrate “probable cause” and support it with an oath as well as specific information of where they wish to search and what they will seize if they find it

Why is This Right So Important?

The Fourth Amendment is important because it essentially prohibits law enforcement from being able to stop you, search you, and then use any evidence they find against you in court. For example, they are forbidden from stopping you randomly on the street, searching your backpack, finding your stash of marijuana, and then arresting you and submitting it as evidence for your trial.

In this instance, because the search was unlawful, you or your Daytona Beach criminal defense attorney could argue that the evidence was gained unlawfully, and that it should be barred from the trial based on that fact. Any evidence that is gained unlawfully as well as any supplemental evidence gained by searching for that evidence is considered to be “fruit of the poisonous tree,” and therefore cannot be used against you in a court of law. If any illegitimate evidence is submitted, you or your attorney can motion for a mistrial based on the fact that the illegal evidence then tainted the jury’s opinion.

When Is Search Justified?

Search and seizure are not always unjustified—if they were, law enforcement would get almost nothing done and justice would never be served. Therefore, there are a few instances in which you can reasonably be searched and evidence found legally used against you. First, if you submit to a search willingly and in sound mind, then a search is considered legitimate. Second, and perhaps the most well-known way, law enforcement can obtain a search warrant from the court, which is a document signed by a judge detailing when law enforcement wishes to conduct a search, where they wish to search, and what they hope to find in doing so.

Third, and perhaps the rarest of reasons is when law enforcement have reasonable cause to believe that waiting to obtain a warrant will result in the destruction and loss of evidence, inhibiting justice. However, when you consider that technology has made getting warrants take almost no time at all these days, it’s extremely rare that this is still considered valid.

There Is No Search

There’s one other time that many people forget about in terms of search, and that’s when something cannot be given a reasonable expectation of privacy. In other words, if you have evidence of a crime on you that’s out in the open and easy for the public to see, then law enforcement do not need to obtain evidence in order to search you.

For example, a robber holds up a bank, jumps into a getaway car, throws the gun they used in the holdup on the passenger side floor, and gets away. They are then stopped several hours down the road by an officer because the vehicle matched the description in an alert. The robber thinks they can sweet-talk their way out of it, but the officer quickly pulls them out of the car, and arrests them. In this instance, the officer did not make a wrongful arrest because they gained “probable cause” by noticing the gun on the passenger side floor. This doesnot count as a “search” because the gun in open and plain sight is not granted the same right to privacy as it would have been had the robber placed it into a bag on the passenger seat, shielding it from view. Therefore, the gun can be submitted as evidence in court against the robber, and no search warrant was ever needed.

If you think you may have been falsely searched and arrested, talk to a Dayton Beach criminal defense attorney today by calling Hager & Schwartz, P.A. at (386) 693-1637 and let our team work to suppress the illegally-obtained evidence against you!