When you are arrested and charged with a crime, the evidence against you is the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case. That’s why the police try so hard at an arrest to ensure that they gather any and all evidence against you.
However, it’s not legal for police to simply search you, your home, or any of your property just to see what they can find. They must have the legal right to do that search in the first place.
But how do you know if a search against you was legal or not? Here’s what you need to understand about search and seizure laws in the United States – plus your right as a citizen to help protect you against illegal search and seizure – and how all of that could be the deciding factor in a drug crimes case against you.
The Fourth Amendment
Your right to be protected against illegal search and seizure can be traced back to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. In that amendment, it is stated that citizens have the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizures. It goes on further to say that, for a warrant to be issued to search someone, it has to be based on probable cause.
Basically, the Fourth Amendment helps to guarantee a person’s right to privacy. It bars state or federal law enforcement agencies from unlawfully searching someone and seizing their property.
However, this amendment also works in favor of law enforcement and gives them a reasonable avenue to perform searches and seizures of property. Your privacy rights can be overridden by police if they have probable cause to believe:
- You committed a crime
- There is a warrant issued by a judge
- If the circumstances of the situation allow for a search without a warrant
When Can Police Search You?
There are definitely circumstances under which the police do not need a warrant to search you. They are conducting a legal search of you, your home, and your property if:
You Give Them Consent
If the police ask you if it’s OK to search your home or your car, and you agree, then they don’t need a warrant. Consent must be given freely to the search and cannot be coerced – but you also can withdraw your consent at any time.
There is an Emergency
The police can come to your home for an emergency, like reports of an armed suspect in your neighborhood, and search for that suspect at your residence without a warrant.
If there is evidence within plain view of an officer, they don’t need a search warrant to search your things. What is in plain view is considered to be probable cause. So, for example, if you leave a piece of drug paraphernalia in your car that is visible through the window – they can search your car.
Searches Related to Your Arrest
If you are arrested legally, then the police have the right to search your person or your surroundings in order to ascertain whether or not you have any weapons or other objects that can endanger officers.
When Are Searches Illegal?
If the search or seizure of your property is conducted in a way that violates your reasonable expectation of privacy, then it may be illegal. This also includes searches without a warrant or that don’t meet the bar set for searches without warrants.
If the police do not have probable cause to search you or to obtain a warrant, then any search they do may be illegal. To get a search warrant, they need probable cause as well as the approval of a judge who they have affirmed that there is enough evidence to warrant a search.
Warrants can also exclude certain property, so if a warrant has an exclusion, but that is violated, then the search that revealed drug evidence against you may be illegal.
How do you know if a search was illegal? That’s something you should ask your attorney. If the search was illegal, then any evidence gathered against you can be thrown out.
When Searches are Illegal
If there was an illegal search conducted by police, and it can be demonstrated as such in court, you still need an attorney to make your case. That’s because an illegal search doesn’t automatically mean that a case will be thrown out. The prosecutor may have enough evidence to go forward with their case against you, even if other evidence is thrown out of court. On top of that, the judge can still consider evidence that is illegally seized during sentencing.