Searches and Seizures
Search and seizure is a law enforcement procedure where the police and other law enforcement agencies search an individual’s property or person and confiscate any relevant material that could be used as evidence of a crime. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects citizens from unwarranted and arbitrary search and seizure procedures. The Amendment declares that citizens should feel secure in their persons and their property against unreasonable searches and seizures. According to the Amendment, citizens have a right to privacy, and security of their persons, property. The right should not be violated unless there is probable cause, and the law enforcement agency involved presents a warrant for search and seizure to the individual (Cuddihy, 1986).
The purpose of the Amendment is to strike a balance between the social interest in investigating unlawful activity through search and seizure and protecting the interest of citizens who have a right to be free from the government interfering in their personal lives. It is important to note that the Amendment applies specifically to government search and seizures. The scope of the Amendment does not cover search and seizures carried out by private individuals or agencies that are not acting on behalf of the government.
Search and the Fourth Amendment
Earlier Fourth Amendment Case Laws only recognized a search as having occurred if there was a physical intrusion by the law enforcement agency on the person, his property, his papers, or any of his effects. Cases such as Olmstead v. United States (1928) held that the Amendment only applied to cases that involved physical intrusion by the law enforcement officials. The Amendment did not apply to other forms of governmental intrusion and surveillance including wiretaps (Labunski, 2006).
Katz v. United States (1967) expanded the protections alluding to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure in the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court expanded the Amendment’s scope to include right to privacy. The court ruled that a search had occurred when the government had wiretapped a telephone booth by placing a microphone on the outside of the glass. In this case, the court ruled that the defendant had expected privacy by closing the door to the telephone booth. In addition, the society believed that his expectation to privacy was justified and reasonable. According to this ruling, the government had infringed on the defendant’s expectation of privacy, which he had a right to because he is a citizen of the country (Kerr, 2014).
The court used the defendant’s expectation of privacy as justification that the wiretap was indeed a government search. It was an electronic intrusion rather than a physical one but also deserved a warrant for it to be considered reasonable in a court of law. This ruling later led to the development of the two-prong test in determining whether the Fourth Amendment is applicable in a case. The two-prong test encompasses subjectivity and objectivity in relation to expectation of privacy. For a person to prove subjectivity, he needs to have exhibited an actual expectation of privacy. Expectation of privacy is objective when the society recognizes that the expectation is reasonable (Kerr, 2014).
Protection from searches, according to the Fourth Amendment, does not include information that is voluntarily given to the third parties. For instance, in Smith v. Maryland (1979), the Supreme Court held that individuals do not have a legitimate right to privacy regarding phone numbers. This is because the individual has voluntarily given such information to the telephone service companies by dialing the telephone numbers.
There are special circumstances in which a police officer may conduct a search without sufficient probable cause for an arrest. Under Terry v. Ohio (1968), police officers can carry out a warrantless search on an individual. The warrantless search is only permissible if they witness ‘unusual conduct’ that could indicate that a criminal activity is taking or about to take place, that the individual has a weapon, and that the suspicious individual could be a danger to the officer or to others at that particular moment in time. Under such circumstances, the police officer can carry out a Terry Stop, a frisk used to determine if the individual is carrying a weapon.
However, the police officers need to be able to point to specific facts, which when added to logic justify his warrantless search. Under Florida v. Royer (1983), the Terry Stop needs to be limited to the reason for the stop and consequent search. The police officer cannot begin to interrogate the suspect on other issues such as possession of marijuana when he stopped him under the suspicion that the individual was driving under the influence.
Seizure and the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment protects the citizens from unreasonable seizures of their properties or their persons. The Amendment views seizure as a material interference with property that an individual has possessory interests in. The scope of this definition also encompasses evictions. The Amendment also protects people from being unreasonably seized by the law enforcement agencies including detentions.
Under United States v. Mendenhall (1980), a person is said to be seized when a law enforcement authority curtails his freedom of movement and even a reasonable person would believe that the individual could not leave out of his own free will. If a person does not exhibit signs of illegal behavior, then the police have no right to curtail his freedom by arresting him. In addition, a seizure has not occurred if the individual remains free to disregard any questioning by the police officers.
Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement
Search and seizures effected outside the judicial process, i.e. without a warrant are deemed unreasonable and unconstitutional. Evidence from an unreasonable search and seizure is inadmissible in a court of law in the United States. For a warrant to be deemed reasonable, the search and seizure procedure needs to be supported by probable cause and be limited in scope. This limitation in scope intimates that the warrant is based on specific information supplied by an individual, usually the police officer who swears by the warrant.
However, there are circumstances in which a police officer does not have to provide a warrant when conducting a search and seizure. For instance, if an individual voluntarily gives consent to a search, then a warrant is deemed unnecessary. Few considerations have to be made to determine if the consent is valid. For starters, the scope of the consent should be clearly indicated by both parties. Secondly, the consent needs to be given voluntarily and not under duress. Lastly, the individual who gives the consent needs to be in a lawful position to grant the consent especially if the property belongs to another individual or they are co-sharing the property.
The plain view doctrine holds that a law enforcement official may seize property that is in plain view. The doctrine can only apply if the police officer is present at that location constitutionally. In addition, the police officer needs to demonstrate probable cause for seizing the property such as he believed the objects were contraband when he seized them.
Law enforcement officers can also search and seize property on open places such as open water, parks, and forests without a warrant. However, the police officers need to demonstrate that these open areas do not hold any expectation to privacy. They need to demonstrate that their search and seizure procedures does not contravene with any individual’s subjective or objective expectation of privacy. Thus, the Fourth Amendment’s scope of protection on individuals, their property, papers and effects does not cover open areas.
It is important to note that the curtilage or vegetation immediately outside or surrounding a home does not constitute an open field. The Supreme Court ruled that this land is considered an extension of an individual’s home. Thus, this area is protected from warrantless search and seizure in the Fourth Amendment. However, aerial surveillance of curtilage is not protected under the Fourth Amendment as long as the airspace above this area is considerably accessible to the public. In other words, the airspace above the curtilage is considered an open field as determined by the constitution.
Another exception to the warrant rule is search and seizure of motor vehicles. The Supreme Court intimates that people in automobiles have a reduced expectation of privacy. The reason behind this is the fact that cars are usually not residences or places where people keep personal effects. The general rule is that police officers should not randomly stop and search vehicles without a warrant unless they have probable cause to do so or reasonably believe that the vehicle or passengers might be involved in a criminal activity (Moore, 2009).
Compartments that could hold dangerous instruments may be searched and their contents seized without a warrant. In addition, items that are in plain view could also be seized. In fact, as long as the police officer has probable cause, he can search any part of the vehicle. However, the search cannot extend to the passengers unless the officer has probable cause or the passengers give him consent to do so.
Cuddihy, W. (1986). Fourth Amendment, Historical Origins of. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution.
Kerr, O. (2014, June 11). Katz has only one-step: the irrelevance of subjective expectations. University of Chicago Law Review. Retrieved on 25/2/2016.
Labunski, R.E. (2006). James Madison and the struggle for the Bill of Rights. Oxford University Press.
Moore, K. (2009, Apr 21). Limits on warrantless car searches, compensation to terrorism victims, veterans benefit disputes. The Supreme Court of the United States Blog. Retrieved on 25/2/2016 from http://www.scotusblog.com/2009/04/a-new-rule-for-warrantless-car-searches/