December 15th will be the Fourth Amendment’s 228th anniversary. Most people associate this amendment with the phrase “unreasonable search and seizure,” but few understand the full scope of the law, and legislators continue to debate about its role in police searches in the 21st century.
Immediately after 9/11, for example, the U.S. government passed the Patriot Act, effectively allowing law enforcement and investigators to stop acts (or potential acts) of terrorism by any means necessary. In other words, if police believe you may eventually threaten U.S. security, they can sidestep your Fourth Amendment rights. Now, social media, advanced surveillance technologies, and ever-changing internet privacy laws are complicating matters even more, because searches may not always be physical.
The original text guarantees our right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and a court can only issue a warrant based on probable cause. But what counts as unreasonable, and what will the court consider probable cause? To help clarify some common misunderstandings and provide a general foundation for your rights, here are the answers to 5 frequently asked questions about lawful police searches.
1. What is a consent search?
A consent search is when you say yes to a police officer’s request to search you, your home, or your private property. This is the most common form of search without a warrant. One lesser-known caveat to this arrangement is that if you are charged with a crime relating to evidence found during the search, the prosecutor must prove that you voluntarily consented to the search.
2. What is considered an illegal search?
Generally, an illegal search is when police search you or your property without a warrant or your voluntary consent. Many police officers do not inform suspects that a search is voluntary, so people will allow the search because they believe they have no choice in the matter. If a police officer falsely claims they have the right to a search, and you submit to the search because of this coercion, the court will usually consider the search involuntary.
Some law enforcement officials will obtain evidence while undercover. Even if you consented to a search because you didn’t realize they were the police, the court will most likely allow evidence obtained during the search because you theoretically accepted the risk that the person could betray you.
3. Can police enter private property without permission?
Most people believe police can only search your vehicle or home if you give them explicit permission or they have a warrant. Certain circumstances, however, override this basic principle. In some cases, a person will give a simple “yes” or “no” answer, but a testifying police officer will claim they misunderstood your response. Providing a clear answer (i.e. “you cannot search my private home without a warrant”) is crucial for protecting your Fourth Amendment rights.
In dangerous situations or emergencies, police authority is typically more expansive. For example, if they reasonably suspect you are about to become violent, they may be able to search you without permission. Police can only administer a “pat-down” if they believe you have a weapon.
4. Who can consent to a search?
In most cases, law enforcement must obtain your consent if they are searching you or your property. In order for a court to allow consent from a third party, the third party must have common authority over your property. For example, a hotel manager could consent to a police search of your hotel room. If you are a tenant, however, your landlord cannot typically consent to a search of your apartment.
5. Can you withdraw consent to a search?
Yes, as long as you clearly express the withdrawal. However, if you are being screened in an airport, or you a visiting someone in prison, you will most likely not be able to withdraw consent.
Why Personalized Counsel Is Crucial for Your Case
Unfortunately, every situation is unique, and these basic guidelines may not apply to your case. Because the search and seizure must be “reasonable,” qualifying circumstances may require a different interpretation of Fourth Amendment rights and the scope of law enforcement power.
If police searched you, your vehicle, your home, or other property, you will need the skills and experience of a qualified attorney to determine whether this search was lawful. At Hester Law Group, our attorneys are known for securing multimillion-dollar settlements for Tacoma clients and helping them avoid life-altering penalties. When your freedom is on the line, don’t settle for less than the best.
Put 150+ years of combined experience on your side. Schedule your free case review or call us directly at (253) 300-3034 today.