A Brief Overview of the Fourth Amendment
A Brief Overview of the Fourth Amendment of the United States' Constitution
What the Fourth Amendment SaysThe Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is a part of the Bill of Rights. It reads:
"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."
This is the right that controls your everyday interactions with the police. Getting pulled over for a ticket, the police knocking on your door to talk to your son, the police setting up a roadblock, or any government agent conducting any search and seizure of any person or object.
The Right is PersonalFirst, it is important to consider that the right is personal. This means that if the police search your neighbors house illegally and find incriminating evidence about you that you accidentally left there, you probably cannot challenge the search of your neighbors house in court. There are some exceptions to this rule, but this is just an example of how the right is personal. Generally, you can only challenge a search or seizure of your own person or property. This is called "standing" to challenge the search or seizure.
Suppression and the Exclusionary RuleAnother important thing to consider is that the courts will "suppress" any evidence that is obtained as a result of an illegal search or seizure that you have "standing" to challenge. Suppression means that the government cannot use the illegally obtained evidence, or even anything that resulted from the illegally obtained evidence. So, if the police pull your car over for no reason and then get a search warrant for your car and later find drugs in it, if the initial detention of your car is illegal, the finding of the drugs can be suppressed even though they got a warrant for the second search.
What is a Reasonable Search or Seizure?As the right states it prevents the government from conducting "unreasonable" searches or seizures. Reasonableness is decided by the courts, but the general standards of proof that the courts make these decisions on are "reasonable suspicion" and "probable cause."
A "reasonable suspicion" is a relatively low standard which means that the police must have more than a hunch, but a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity. Criminal activity can include activity infractions, like speeding or failing to signal. Reasonable suspicion will allow the police to make a brief detention to either confirm or deny their suspicions in order to establish "probable cause."
"Probable cause" exists where there is a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime or that evidence of a crime will be found in the place sought to be searched. Probable cause for an arrest in Washington is usually up to the officer's discretion and does not require a warrant. Probable cause for a search typically does require a warrant; however, there are several large exceptions to this general warrant requirement.
Exceptions to the Warrant RequirementThe general exceptions to the warrant requirement are (1) search incident to arrest; (2) consent; (3) plain view; (4) Terry frisk; (5) community caretaking; (6) hot pursuit; (7) exigent circumstances. These exceptions will be discussed further in later blogs.
Also, if the police have not "detained" you in some way, then the Fourth Amendment does not kick in. Thus, if the police just come up to you and shine a flash light and tell you to answer some questions, you may not actually be "detained" within the meaning of the law and your Fourth Amendment rights are not in play. In this situation, you should ask the officer if you are being detained or are free to leave. If you are free to leave, you should just leave.
If you are detained, ask to speak with a lawyer and exercise your right to remain silent. As soon as practicable, consult with that attorney regarding the charges.