We’ve all heard the term “search and seizure”, but what does it mean? A search is defined by U.S. v. Jacobsen as occurring when an expectation of privacy that society is prepared to consider reasonable is infringed. A “seizure” of property occurs when there is some meaningful interference with an individual’s possessory interest in that property.

The 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the basis for the forbidding of unlawful searches and seizures. This law protects us from unlawful interference from the government, but does not offer protection from private citizens or those not working for the government. In Texas, your protections are also based on the 4th amendment. State and city police must also follow the 4th amendment when working with U.S. citizens.

In America, we have what is called a “reasonable expectation of privacy” which has been defined and protected us. Because of this legal protection, we can live without fear of baseless searches and seizures. In fact, if evidence of a crime is found through means which violate the 4th amendment, it can be excluded in court proceedings. Your attorney would file what is called a Motion to Suppress, which would exclude the evidence from trial under the exclusionary rule.

You may, however, consent to a search. Many times, if you’re pulled over while driving, the police officer will ask if they can look in your car. In fact, if they see something illegal through the window, you don’t even have to consent to the search. It’s best to never bring anything in a car you wouldn’t want an officer of the law to see. In Carroll v. U.S., the Supreme Court established the motor vehicle exception, noting that an officer might search a vehicle without a search warrant as long as they have probable cause to believe that evidence or contraband is located in the vehicle.

Similar to the automobile exception, exigent circumstances apply to entering a structure without a search warrant or, if they have a warrant, to enter without knocking and announcing or waiting for a refusal. These circumstances are defined as including people being in imminent danger, evidence is facing imminent destruction, or a suspect is about to escape. Once they’ve entered, the “plain view doctrine” applies, and anything readily visible is fair game for evidence in the court room.

There are four doctrines that protect officers including reasonableness, probable cause, judicial authority, and particularity. Probable cause requires an acceptable degree of justified suspicion. Particularity is the requirement that warrants shall particularly describe the things to be seized. This prevents general warrants that cause the seizure of things not originally searched for.

The definition of probable cause is the cornerstone of the 4th Amendment, and is interpreted by the courts. The basis of probable cause is determined according to the “reasonable person” rule, which is common in the law. Would a reasonable person believe a crime has been committed?

If evidence is obtained improperly, it may be excluded from evidence in a case. However, since the 1970s there have been many exceptions carved out of the fourth amendment to the benefit of law enforcement and the state. These exceptions have allowed policies such as stop and frisk. Only recently has the supreme court given back some of the protections that have previously been stripped away. Recent case law has given the fourth amendment more teeth in fighting back against the state encroaching on individual rights.