Search and Seizure and Your Rights

If you or a loved one has been arrested and charged with a drug crime, there may be legal issues that could be used to reduce or eliminate these charges. In this brief article, a drug trafficking attorney in St. Petersburg with Russo, Pelletier & Sullivan will discuss the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and your right to be free from illegal searches and seizures. 

Understanding the Fourth Amendment

Under the Fourth Amendment, U.S. citizens are guaranteed the following rights:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The key to any legal issue related to the Fourth Amendment is whether or not the actions of law enforcement during a search and seizure were “reasonable” or not. Generally, citizens are protected from a search and seizure if there is a reasonable belief that they have a right to privacy. In other words, if you had a realistic expectation of privacy, a search or seizure undertaken by the government without a warrant is presumed unlawful. Of course, law enforcement can seek the issuance a search warrant from a judge in order to conduct a search or a seizure. However, many (if not most) searches occur based on a probable cause belief of criminal activity combined with some “exception” to the warrant requirement.

Expectations of Privacy

As we discussed above, citizens are presumed to have a great degree of privacy from the prying eyes of the government; however, the Fourth Amendment does allow “reasonable” searches and seizures. Determining what exactly is a reasonable search is often decided on a case by case basis. There are two specific areas that the courts have dealt with extensively in relation to a citizen’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures: 

  • Your Home: The location where a person has the greatest expectation of privacy is in their own home. Without probable cause to believe criminal activity is occurring and an “exigent” or emergency circumstance, law enforcement will need to have a warrant to conduct a search within a home and to seize any items within the home. Exigent or emergency circumstances can include a reasonable belief that a person may destroy evidence before a warrant is issued or a need to act because there is an immediate and real danger to someone’s safety.
  • Your Automobile: Although a car is a piece of property that belongs to a person, the expectations of privacy involving an automobile are significantly lower than a homeowner’s expectations. Police officers can perform a search of a car if the motorist gives them consent, if there is reasonable suspicion of a crime (a lower standard then probable cause), if they have a search warrant, or if there are facts that would cause a reasonable law enforcement officer to believe it’s necessary for their protection, or if the search is related to an arrest. Although a motorist has the right to refuse to consent to a search, law enforcement’s powers to search a vehicle are much broader than searches of a home.   

Was the Evidence Legally Obtained?

If evidence is seized during an illegal search, this evidence is not admissible in court. In other words, if you were away from your home and an officer entered the premises without your consent and seized illegal drugs or paraphernalia without probable cause combined with exigent circumstances or in the absence of a search warrant, this evidence was illegally obtained and would not be admissible. This is known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. However, the exclusion of the evidence does not happen automatically. A criminal defense attorney would need to file a Motion to Suppress and argue before the judge assigned to your case that your fourth amendment rights had been violated. If a search and seizure is deemed unlawful by the court following such a motion, the evidence would be excluded from use in court. Obviously, the exclusion of the seized drugs would be likely to significantly impact the ability of the prosecutor to prove a drug crime case.     

For a free consultation with a drug crimes attorney in St. Petersburg, please contact Russo, Pelletier & Sullivan today.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.