Under protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and accompanying legal precedent, citizens are protected from illegal, unreasonable, or otherwise, prohibited search and seizure by government officials and law enforcement bodies.
Legal vs. Illegal Search and Seizure Process
In order for a search to be deemed legal and the evidence seizures resulting from this search to remain admissible in court, government agents must adhere to several principles regarding legal searches.
The first, and most universal, revolves around the necessity of law enforcement to obtain a warrant before any search or seizure of a private citizen’s property or person occurs. However, legal precedent and other important doctrines related to legal searches and seizures exist today, which afford law enforcement and other government agents much more leeway when conducting a legally enforceable search. These searches, and ensuing seizures, are permissible in the event a warrant is not present, in the following scenarios:
Legal search and seizure may occur almost universally, if a suspect consents to search after requests from law enforcement. It is important to note, however, that law enforcement does not need to inform a suspect of their right to refuse a search, and depending on what is known as the “totality of the circumstances”, various forms of questionable methods are employed by law enforcement in order to obtain a consent to search, which may include using another person’s consent, if that person is deemed an equal owner or authority of intended area of search.
Reasonable expectation of privacy laws prevent most unreasonable searches and seizures, however, caveats and court rulings to these legal doctrines have steadily decreased an individual’s rights regarding reasonable expectations of privacy. In many cases, legal violations of privacy expectations can be used to provide probable cause.
Probable cause searches, which are extremely ambiguous and case-specific, are legally allowed searches afforded to law enforcement that can lead to seizure of both property and person
Exigent circumstances, otherwise known as “hot pursuit”, which allows law enforcement to proceed without warrant or officially establishing probable cause in light in public safety, their own safety, or numerous other situations
Reporting Illegal Search and Seizure
In almost all cases, the results of a search and seizure, regardless of future legitimacy, will produce some form of evidence to be used at a future date in the prosecution of a criminal charge. The evidence, which will be presented by a prosecutor at a criminal trial, can be withdrawn from the courts, via a process known as exclusion, if the courts determine that the given pieces of evidence or testimony were obtained illegally according to the laws of legal searches and seizure. Admitting evidence to a trial requires that the legality of the evidence seized, including the means of obtaining this evidence, be done in a manner deemed legal according to federal and state standards. Federal law and state laws, however, may vary from one another regarding reasonable expectations to privacy, informed consent, and other issues associated with legal versus illegal search and seizure.
Get Informed: Learn more about your rights in our topic area on Search and Seizure Laws.
Getting Legal Help for Illegal Search and Seizure
Having an attorney navigate these important legal principles before any criminal trial is important, as all or parts of prosecutor’s evidence against a defendant may potentially be dismissed due to illegal or erroneous warrants to search, among other items.