How the Fourth Amendment protects you

The framers of the U.S. Constitution included specific protections for individuals that prevent the government from taking advantage of you. One of these protections comes in the Fourth Amendment, which prevents unreasonable and unlawful searches and seizures.

What this means is that law enforcement officials cannot simply burst into your home, start searching and seize your property unless specific circumstances exist. Under ordinary circumstances, they will need to obtain a valid search warrant in order to conduct a search and seize your property.

Did the officer need a search warrant?

In some situations, a law enforcement officer does not need a search warrant. For example, if the officer places you under arrest, he or she may search your person. If the officer arrives at your home and finds evidence out on the front lawn in plain sight, he or she does not need a search warrant. Through its rulings, the United States Supreme Court provides guidance regarding whether an officer needs a search warrant.

First, will the search occur in a place where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy? For instance, would others agree with you? If a reasonable person agrees that you should expect privacy in a certain location, then officers probably need a search warrant before entering to conduct a search.

In order to obtain a search warrant, officers need to show the court that valid probable cause exists. This means that enough evidence exists to make the invasion of your privacy legal.

What happens after an illegal search?

If the court agrees that the search conducted by a government official such as a police officer violated your Fourth Amendment rights, any evidence derived from the search may not be part of the evidence during court proceedings. This exclusion of evidence occurs in order to keep police officers from crossing the line, and illegally and unreasonably conducting searches and seizures.

The rule goes further than that, however. In some cases, evidence seized during a search leads officers to other evidence. The court could also exclude that other evidence because it resulted from the initial search, which was illegal. Even though certain pieces of evidence may not come into court, it does not preclude prosecutors from admitting other legally obtained evidence.

The exclusion of certain evidence does not necessarily mean that your case goes away. You may still need to protect your rights and mount a defense that provides you with the best possible outcome to your case.

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