Fourth Amendment rights are some of the most commonly litigated protections in the U.S. Constitution. The question that often arises is, “Can the police search my property?”
According to your Fourth Amendment rights, your home and possessions are protected against unreasonable searches.
But what exactly does that mean?
If you’re ever involved in any criminal proceedings, clearly understanding your rights can help you protect yourself and your family.
What is the Fourth Amendment?
The Fourth Amendment was ratified in the United States Bill of Rights in 1791. It was formed around the mindset that “each man’s home is his castle.”
“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.”
Your Fourth Amendment Rights Explained
Whether a search is considered reasonable and lawful is a balancing act. Those enforcing public safety and government interests must also account for the potential encroachment on a person’s fourth amendment rights. There must be probable cause present.
What is Probable Cause?
Probable cause is a standard that police officers use when pursuing a warrant for an arrest or search of a property.
The term discourages unlawful searches and promotes lawful evidence gathering in court proceedings. There must be probable cause or reason to believe for a search warrant to be enforced.
Searches must have prior approval and authorization before taking place.
Even with good probable cause to search, the warrant can only be issued by a judge or magistrate.
In Weeks v. United States (1914), police officers used a hidden key to enter Mr. Weeks’ home and search through it without any warrant. They seized things like paperwork, books, and letters that were later used in court to prove Mr. Weeks was guilty of using the mail to distribute lottery tickets.
After litigation, the judgment was reversed. The search was deemed unconstitutional; therefore, any evidence obtained during the search was deemed inadmissible in court.
The protections an individual is granted under their Fourth Amendment rights can change depending on the location of the search.
Although it’s a standard investigative technique for law enforcement to approach a house and engage in “friendly conversation” to gain evidence, understanding your rights in these situations is invaluable.
Police officers are prohibited from performing searches and seizures inside a home unless they have a warrant.
However, there are some exceptions to this:
- Officers can enter your home without a search warrant if you give them consent to search
- If police are pursuing a lawful arrest and believe the individual may be in your home, they can proceed without a warrant
- If there are “exigent circumstances” present—situations where there may be immediate threats to property or public safety
- If the evidence is in plain sight (seen through a window or door), an officer can come in and seize those items
The police may ask to search you by conducting a frisk or a pat-down.
You do not have to submit to the search.
If you are being arrested, however, an officer does not need your consent to check you for any weapons or sharp objects you could use to harm them.
A subject’s refusal of a law enforcement officer’s request to conduct a voluntary search without probable cause may NOT be used as the basis for a search or an arrest.
But the police can stop you… briefly. If an officer witnesses suspicious activity that gives them a reason to believe criminal activity may occur, they can stop you and ask questions to validate or dispel their suspicions.
With safeguarding all students in mind, Fourth Amendment rights are slightly different for students in school.
A police officer can search a student without a warrant.
Suppose a school staff member has reason to believe that a student may be engaging in criminal activity or that they are a threat to the safety of others (i.e., withholding weapons, contraband). In that case, the school has the authority to request a reasonable search of the student.
Fourth Amendment rights are vastly different when it comes to your vehicle.
Almost all vehicle searches take place without a search warrant.
If the police have a reasonable suspicion that there may be evidence of criminal activity in the vehicle, they can engage in a search and seizure.
Checkpoints are legal in Missouri. The state can set up highway checkpoints to catch drunk drivers or help catch an active criminal they believe may be in the area.
Defending Your Fourth Amendment Rights
Understanding the rights and protections we all have as American citizens is the best way to protect them.
You have a right to privacy.
In today’s society, it’s becoming increasingly prevalent that we must defend our rights and freedoms at every opportunity.
Do you feel that your Fourth a=Amendment rights have been violated? Do you have more questions about what the police can and cannot do when it comes to the search of your property?
Contact a Rose Legal Services criminal defense attorney to determine your next steps.