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4th Amendment Search and Seizure Protections

8. What protections does the 4th Amendment provide to individuals subject to criminal charges?

Protection of Individual Rights

The 4th Amendment protects individuals against “unreasonable search and seizure”. More specifically, the police must obtain a court order before searching the individual’s body or any physical location where the defendant has an expectation of privacy. To obtain a search order, the government must demonstrate to a judicial official (generally a magistrate judge) that there is probable cause to believe that the suspect or private location contains evidence of a crime. There are certain limitations to the requirement that the government secure a search warrant before searching private property. The most common exceptions include:

•    “Exigent circumstances” – This doctrine allows the government to proceed with a search of premises if there is a risk of harm to individuals or the destruction of evidence.

•    “Grab Area” – Officers may search any place that is in the immediate grab area of a suspect at the time of arrest. The grab area can be interpreted very broadly to include any place in the reach of a suspect at any point during the arrest.

•    “US Entry/Exit” – The Federal Government also allows for warrantless searches at the border for individuals entering the United States. As such, there is no expectation of privacy for vehicles entering and leaving the country.

Special rules apply to electronic forms of surveillance, such as audio and visual recordings. Electronic surveillance generally requires a search warrant if surveilling a space where an expectation of privacy exists.

Protection of Businesses

The expectation of privacy applies to businesses as well as individuals. That is, the government must obtain a search warrant prior to searching business premises. This extends to administrative and civil enforcement actions as well. The more heavily regulated the business industry, the less it is afforded privacy protections against search. Many businesses have no expectation of privacy when the business is heavily regulated or closely connected to receipt of government funds for operation.

•    Example: If the owner objects, a building inspector may need a warrant to inspect whether a building meets code. A public university, government funded research laboratory, or public utility may have limited rights to privacy.

Exclusion of Unlawfully Obtained Evidence

The 4th Amendment protection against warrantless searches is enforced through criminal procedural law. If the government violates an individual’s 4th Amendment rights by conducting an unlawful search and seizure, the evidence uncovered in the search is not admissible at trial against the accused. This is known as the “exclusionary rule”. This rule exists to prevent the government, which has an interest in using seized evidence for prosecution of criminal law offenders, from infringing upon a defendant’s constitutional rights in pursuit of criminal law enforcement. There are exceptions to the exclusionary rule for unlawful searches. For example, if the government relied in good faith on a search warrant from the court that was later deemed invalid, the evidence uncovered in the search may still be used in a prosecution. This is known as the “good faith exception”. Further, if evidence is uncovered in an unlawful search that would have been inevitably discovered without the unlawful search, it may be used in a prosecution. This is known as the “inevitable discovery exception”.

•    Note: If the government searches beyond the authorization of the search warrant, any evidence uncovered in the search may be excluded.

•    Discussion: Do you think the 4th Amendment protects individual rights or is a hindrance on maintaining law and order? Why do you think that there is less 4th Amendment protection for businesses than individuals? Is the exclusionary rule sufficient repercussion to dissuade conduct by officials that violates an individual’s 4th Amendment rights?

•    Practice Question: Perry is suspected of dealing illegal narcotics from his home. A private informant testifies to a magistrate that he witnessed Perry selling drugs from his home. The magistrate issues a search warrant for the home, but does not include the automobile on the premises. The police raid and search Perry’s home but do not find any narcotics. One of the officers finds the keys to Perry’s car and searches the trunk. Below the spare tire is a large amount of illegal narcotics. Perry is charged with possession of the narcotics with intent to distribute. At trial, what defense will Perry likely raise to introduction of the drugs as evidence?

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