The Fourth Amendment protects people from “unreasonable” searches and seizures. While this may seem straightforward on paper, the reality is anything but straightforward.
The following should help to clarify the protections of the Fourth Amendment, the requirements of probable cause, and situations where law enforcement may perform a search without implicating your constitutional rights.
What does probable cause mean?
The Fourth Amendment requires probable cause for a search warrant. Probable cause must also exist for an officer to stop a citizen or to perform a warrantless search. Many people believe that an officer’s “hunch” or “gut feeling” is enough for the police to claim probable cause. However, the Constitution requires something more than mere suspicion.
An officer has probable cause to make an arrest when the facts and surrounding circumstances would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a person is about to commit a crime, is in the progress of committing a crime, or has already committed a crime.
Probable cause for a search requires that a reasonable person would believe that a crime was committed at the location that is to be searched, or evidence of a crime is being held at the site to be searched.
The same “reasonable person” requirement applies to property seizures.
Of course, exceptions apply
It wouldn’t be a rule if there weren’t exceptions. Law enforcement can get around probable cause concerns in several different situations, including:
- Searches carried out to protect the health and safety of the public
- Searches of a person and the surrounding area when making an arrest
- Cases where criminal evidence is in plain view
- Consent is given by a spouse or roommate to search a home
- The suspect provided permission
Obviously, police have a wide latitude to perform warrantless searches. However, this fact doesn’t render the Fourth Amendment meaningless. You may be able to raise a strong constitutional defense. You should always discuss the specifics of your case with a skilled professional.