Search and seizure: Rights and restrictions

On Behalf of | Mar 12, 2024 | Criminal Defense

Police officers sometimes need to search personal property to obtain evidence for a criminal matter. But, they can’t lawfully do this without having a valid reason. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution enshrines specific protections for individuals in this country when it comes to searches and seizures.

Understanding the basics of search and seizure law can help people to more effectively recognize if their rights are being respected. In some cases, they may learn that those rights weren’t respected, which can become a critical point in a defense strategy in the event that an unlawful search and/or seizure has led to criminal charges.

Requirements to obtain a warrant

Law enforcement must demonstrate probable cause, which means there are reasonable grounds to believe that evidence is present in the requested location, to a judge or magistrate to get a warrant. The warrant must specify the location to be searched and the items to be seized, ensuring that the search remains within the scope of the probable cause that justified the warrant’s issuance. This specificity prevents overly broad or generalized searches, focusing instead on particular evidence related to specific criminal activities.

Exceptions to the warrant requirement

While the warrant requirement is a fundamental principle, there are several exceptions where the law permits police officers to conduct searches and seizures without a warrant.

One common exception is consent. This means the person gives the police officers permission to search a specific area. Consent is only legally valid if it’s given freely and it’s limited to only the scope of the permission.

Another significant exception is the exigent circumstances exception. If police officers have a reasonable belief that waiting to obtain a warrant would lead to the destruction of evidence, the escape of a suspect or harm to individuals, they may act without a warrant. This is often applicable in emergency situations where immediate action is necessary to prevent greater harm.

The plain view doctrine allows officers to seize evidence without a warrant if they are lawfully present at a location and discover evidence in plain sight that is immediately apparent as contraband or connected to a crime. Additionally, searches incident to a lawful arrest are permitted without a warrant, enabling officers to search the arrested individual and the area within their immediate control to ensure officer safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.

Evidence gathered illegally isn’t admissible in a criminal case. Defendants who believe this was a factor in their case should discuss the matter with a legal representative to determine their options for proceeding.