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What Constitutes an Illegal Search?

Flint criminal defense attorneyEver since the formation of the Transportation Security Administration and their arrival in airports, the Fourth Amendment has been a constant topic of debate. The discussion raises new concerns regarding high-profile arrests, data collection by intelligence agencies, and even traffic cameras.

The amendment, which protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” has required interpretation throughout American history as courts wrestle with the questions of what constitutes a search, when something or someone has been seized, what the requirements for “probable cause” really mean, and when all of this applies. The current state of affairs is complex, and ongoing debates about modern questions may continue to mold it, but here is a brief overview of the general protections an American can expect.

Illegal Search and Seizure

According to an article published by the National Constitution Center, there is a notable difference between the way the Fourth Amendment is currently understood and the way it is actually practiced. On paper, the amendment ensures that people can expect law enforcement and similar entities to respect individual privacy unless pressing matters require otherwise.

This means that materials and information on one’s person and in one’s own home, vehicle, and electronic devices (among others) should be free from scrutiny unless there is reason to believe that access to it is necessary to keep the public safe. When that is the case, a warrant must be obtained to search those places. This warrant must itself be limiting, giving agents access to specific named locations to search for specific named items or information.

In practice, however, recognized exceptions to the amendment have ensured that agents are usually only held accountable as part of court process. Evidence acquired through an illegal search cannot be admitted into court but will only be tagged as illegal if the defendant pushes for it. Cornell’s Legal Information Institute notes that “the protection under the Fourth Amendment can be waived if one voluntarily consents to or does not object to evidence collected during a warrantless search or seizure.” That emphasis was added to point out that failure to fight against evidence collected during an illegal search allows the court to treat the search as legal.

Exceptions and Response

As noted above, there are exceptions to these legal protections. These most commonly include instances where evidence is in immediate danger of being destroyed, where quick action is necessary to protect public safety, on abandoned property, and in “open-fields” circumstances. This latter example is based on multiple court rulings where it was found that property which cannot maintain a reasonable amount of privacy, such as woods and other large open spaces away from one’s home, are not protected under the Fourth Amendment. The idea is simply that these areas are sufficiently public that anything observable from or found within them do not require a search.

In the end, whether or not you have been the victim of an illegal search will vary by situation. If you suspect that you have been, it is desperately important that you have a lawyer who is on your side, can identify if your situation was illegal, and will fight to have any ill-obtained evidence removed from your criminal case.

When police trample your rights, we help you hold them accountable. Contact Attorney Michael P. Manley today to tell us your story and begin your defense.

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