Search and Seizure

Search and seizure is an examination of someone’s residence, business or vehicle by police officers looking for evidence of a crime. If the evidence is found, they may seize it.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution limits the power that police officers have to make arrests, search people and their property, and to seize objects. It states:

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.

Because the amendment does not go into detail, most of the laws we have today that determine what makes a search or seizure illegal are found in court rulings. The general rule in the U.S. is that a valid search warrant is required to search someone’s property.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. One exception is when the owner of the property consents to the officer’s request to search it. The consent must be voluntary. The law enforcement agent is not required to tell the suspect that he may refuse.

Another exception is when someone does not possess a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” An example of this is leaving your trash in a garbage can outside of the home – society does not acknowledge that you can expect your trash to remain private.

There is also an “automobile exception.” One law scholar has even said that you should never put anything in your car that you would not want an officer to see.

There is also an “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement. During exigent circumstances, the officer has a reasonable belief that evidence is in danger of being removed or destroyed, and must act quickly to gather the evidence.