Search and Seizure: What You Need to Know
Search and seizure laws protect Americans from any unlawful or unreasonable search and confiscation of personal property without probable cause or warrant. It is critical that you know your Fourth Amendment rights here, because when you do not know how they apply (or protect you), you could have your rights violated and be completely unaware that it has happened.
What Is the Search and Seizure Law?
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from any illegal, unreasonable searches of their personal property (and seizures of that property) by law enforcement. Likewise, a court cannot issue a search warrant without probable cause being proven by the requesting agency.
Essentially, this constitutional right protects Americans from their privacy being violated and ensures that you can feel safe in your own home or even in your vehicle. Law enforcement cannot invade your privacy without probable cause, and when unreasonable or unprovoked searches and seizures occur, that is a violation of your constitutional rights.
One caveat: If a search is deemed “reasonable,” then law enforcement does have the right to enter and seize property. Therefore, law enforcement can search your private residence, your vehicle, an extra garage, your office, and take personal belongings, documents, and even search your financial accounts.
To violate that, however, law enforcement must have probable cause that indicates they would find evidence you have committed a crime if they were to search and seize that evidence. The circumstances for their search must be justified, typically with a warrant. However, there are instances where law enforcement can still search without a court-issued warrant.
When Can Police Search and Seize Property?
Police can conduct reasonable searches, but what is reasonable?
To justify a search, law enforcement must have probable cause or a reason to believe that you have evidence of a crime in your home, on you, in your office, or even inside your vehicle. If they can establish probable cause, then they can search and seize property – sometimes without a warrant. In most cases, however, a judge must issue a search warrant.
When law enforcement is granted that search warrant, law enforcement can enter the location specified on the warrant, but they can only search approved areas and seize items specified in the warrant. They can, however, seize items in plain view, which means the items were not hidden and easily seen.
For example, law enforcement has a search warrant to examine your home for evidence from a suspected robbery. While entering, they notice paraphernalia for drugs in your bedroom on your dresser. In this case, they could seize that property as well, because it was on the dresser and in plain view. If, however, that same evidence was hidden in your vehicle outside, and law enforcement doesn’t have a warrant to search your vehicle, then they could not seize it.
Can Law Enforcement Search My Home without a Warrant?
There are circumstances where police could search your home without a court-issued warrant, but these are rare.
Some situations that allow law enforcement to search you, your home, or other personal property without a warrant include:
- You provide consent for the search. If you give law enforcement permission to search you or your residence, then they have been invited; therefore, they are not violating your Fourth Amendment rights. Furthermore, any evidence they find during that search can be used against you. Law enforcement cannot trick or coerce you into consent, otherwise, the search would be deemed invalid.
- You do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy where they are searching. Law enforcement can also search areas where you do not have an expectation of privacy, such as the trash that you have discarded and taken to the street for garbage day.
- There is an emergency situation or “exigent circumstances” allowing the search. If law enforcement has an emergency situation, they have the right to enter someone’s property and search it. For example, someone reports hearing gunshots at a specific address. Law enforcement would enter that property to see if someone was on the premises with a firearm and to make sure no one was injured.
- Law enforcement was already in pursuit of the suspect. If law enforcement is chasing a person from the scene of a crime, then they have the right to search them and the property where they are found.
What Happens If Police Violate Your Fourth Amendment Rights?
If you feel law enforcement unlawfully searched and seized evidence found on you or within your home, you may have a valid defense strategy. Any evidence obtained illegally is considered inadmissible. And if that evidence is deemed inadmissible, any further evidence obtained because of that illegally obtained evidence becomes “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
For example, law enforcement found evidence in your home tying you to a robbery. That evidence was then used to obtain a warrant to search another property where more evidence was found. If the court finds that the initial search was illegal, any evidence obtained from that, and because of that illegal search, will all be deemed inadmissible. That means the prosecutor would have to build their case without using any of the illegally obtained evidence.
In some instances, the entire case hinges on that evidence alone, which means the state may drop its charges. In other cases, the state may proceed, but with weak evidence that allows your attorney to poke more holes and create reasonable doubt.
Hire a Criminal Defense Team Immediately
Regardless of whether you think law enforcement illegally searched and seized evidence, the most important step you can take in your case is to contact a defense attorney who has experience handling these types of cases.
The defense team at New Mexico Criminal Law Offices has helped countless individuals get the best possible outcome in their criminal case, and we can assist you, too. We know how stressful it can be being accused of a crime, but before you take a plea, let our team help find the best possible solution.
Call us now for a free case evaluation or contact us online with your questions.