As residents of the United States, we are granted a certain level of privacy and freedom from government intrusion. With that being said, these freedoms are not absolute. Law enforcement officers are permitted under certain circumstances to perform searches of our homes, vehicles, or other property as a means of identifying and seizing illegal items, stolen goods, or evidence of criminal activity. But under what circumstances may the police perform a search, and what are their limitations?
The police MAY do the following:
1. Perform a “reasonable” search: According to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the police reserve the right to perform searches and seizures when it is “reasonable.” To prove that a search is reasonable, the police must have enough evidence to suspect that a person is guilty of wrongdoing, known as probable cause. If a police officer has probable cause, they may perform a search without a warrant.
2. Search when there is no “legitimate expectation of privacy”: If a person does not have a privacy interest in the items or evidence, the police may take them without even performing a formal “search.” For example, a person were to leave their marijuana pipe on the hood of their car overnight. Since there is no “expectation of privacy” for things left in plain view, the police may confiscate it without question. No search has legally occurred.
3. Use firsthand information or an informant: The police may use their own intelligence or reliable information gathered from an informant to justify a search.
4. Search beyond the bounds of a warrant: In circumstances where the police are granted a warrant to conduct a search, they may search beyond the bounds specified in the warrant if it is necessary to protect others, prevent evidence from being destroyed, discover more about evidence or stolen items that are stored in plain sight, or to search for evidence or items which the police believe to be in another party of the property based on their initial findings.
5. Search if you consent: The police do not need probable cause or a warrant to search your property if you freely and voluntarily consent to a search.
6. Perform a pat-down: The police may perform a “stop and frisk” search if they believe a person may be concealing a weapon.
The police MAY NOT do any of the following:
1. Search an area where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy: If the police do not have a warrant, they may not perform a search of any area where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, unless one of the warrantless exceptions applies for the given situation.
2. Use evidence obtained illegally against you: If the police conducted a search illegally or unreasonably and obtained evidence against you, it may not be used against you in court. Similarly, evidence obtained illegally may not be used as a means to search for further evidence.
3. Search your vehicle: Unless the police have a reasonable suspicion that your vehicle contains evidence of a crime, illegal items, or stolen goods, your vehicle may not be searched. The police may search your vehicle, however, if it has been confiscated.
4. Frisk you without probable cause: If the police do not have a reasonable suspicion that you are involved in criminal activity, they may not pat you down during a “stop and frisk” situation.
If you are facing charges after the police have searched your property or vehicle, our Milwaukee criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of Christopher J. Cherella can examine the circumstances of your situation and determine whether or not your search was performed legally. Having defended hundreds of accused clients for more than 20 years, we can protect your freedom and provide the unshakable support you need during this difficult time.
Call (414) 882-8382 or schedule a free consultation today to review your legal options.