“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, or the things to be seized.”
The Fourth Amendment protects a person’s right to privacy and provides freedom against unreasonable intrusions by the government. While it does not provide protection against all searches and seizures, it mandates that, to be lawful, any search or seizure must be supported by probable cause.
The Fourth Amendment is frequently cited in Motions to Suppress Evidence in criminal cases where the accused seeks to have evidence excluded from trial, claiming that the evidence was discovered as a result of a search or seizure that was unlawful.
But what, exactly, does the Fourth Amendment cover? And how might it apply in your criminal case?
The Fourth Amendment protects against warrantless searches and seizures by police or other government agents.
A search occurs when a government agent violates a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
A seizure occurs when circumstances are such that a reasonable person would not believe he or she is free to ignore the police and leave at will.
To be valid, a search or seizure must be supported by probable cause.
To determine whether a search is lawful, courts will consider whether the person claiming their rights were violated had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the place or thing being searched.
If a court finds that a search or seizure violated the Fourth Amendment, the judge can order that any evidence discovered as a result of the illegal search or seizure be excluded from consideration at trial.
Even after the Fourth Amendment was passed and included as part of the Constitution, it had little effect on criminal cases because evidence seized by law enforcement agents could still be used against a defendant in a criminal trial.
In the 1914 case of Weeks v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a conviction that was based on evidence that had been seized without a warrant or other justification. In 1964, the Court decided Mapp v. Ohio, which formally established the exclusionary rule.
The exclusionary rule is intended to deter illegal police conduct by allowing a court to exclude evidence that was obtained in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights.
A defendant can challenge evidence on the basis that it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. If the court rules in favor of the defendant and finds that an unreasonable search or seizure occurred, the court will exclude the evidence from trial. This means the evidence cannot be considered by the judge or jury.
The “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine is similar to the exclusionary rule. If a court finds that evidence was discovered as a result of an illegal search, any evidence that was derived from the illegal search is also not admissible. The “tree” is the evidence that was illegally obtained, while the “fruit” refers to any additional information that was discovered as a result of the illegally obtained evidence. If the court finds that evidence was illegally obtained, both the tree and the fruit are excluded from the trial.
Police and other law enforcement agents are generally prohibited from conducting a search or seizing property without a warrant. But there are exceptions. For example, even if law enforcement does not have a warrant, they can still conduct a search if the suspect has given consent. Police officers can also conduct a search if it is being conducted incident to a lawful arrest, if there is probable cause to believe a crime is being committed, or if there are exigent circumstances that call for a warrantless search (such as if police believe a suspect is destroying potentially incriminating evidence). Police also have authority to conduct a search if the evidence is in plain view, such as when there are drugs sitting on a seat in a vehicle.
Another limitation of the Fourth Amendment is that it only applies to government agents. If you are stopped and searched by private security personnel when you are shopping, working in an office building, or visiting a friend at an apartment, the Fourth Amendment does not apply.
Even if your criminal defense attorney can prove that evidence was illegally obtained, the case against you is not necessarily over. If the prosecutor has enough other evidence to prove that a defendant is guilty, the case can continue.
In practice, having evidence excluded from trial makes it more difficult for the prosecutor to prove a suspect was guilty and secure a conviction. Having evidence excluded from trial often results in an outright dismissal of the case, or a significant reduction in charges.
If you have been charged with a crime, an experienced criminal defense attorney can review the circumstances of your arrest and may be able to successfully challenge the evidence against you by arguing that it was illegally obtained.
From his offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, criminal defense attorney Robert Elmen proudly represents people who have been charged with crimes throughout southern Michigan.
© 2021 Elmen Legal, PLLC — Ann Arbor, Michigan Criminal Defense Attorney