The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is one of the most historically litigated amendments, having cases up in the Supreme Court as recently as 2016. This amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures by the state of property, and requires that any warrant issued for a search or seizure is ordered by a court and supported by probable cause. You might be more knowledgeable about Jay-Z’s interpretation of the 4th amendment in his song ’99 Problems’, when, during a traffic stop, he shares the following exchange: “Do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?”/ Well my glove compartment is locked/so is the trunk and the back/And I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that.”
With many exceptions, the state (think police officers, the FBI, etc.) can’t just wander into your house and poke through your drawers and closets on the off chance you’re up to no good. Rather, they must usually present evidence to a judge that there is a strong likelihood you are engaged in illegal activity – called probably cause. This is because every citizen of America is afforded the right to privacy. Their request to search or seize property must be narrowly tailored to the crime in question. In other words, if the police think you are dealing drugs out of your house, they should ask for a warrant searching the rooms or drawers of the house, and should not be seizing your television or computer (although this is not always practiced by law enforcement so closely). Searches can also apply to your car, or even your body. Usually, searches that are done without a warrant are called ‘Terry’ searches. Law enforcement is able to conduct a very limited warrantless search if there is reasonable suspicion (a lower standard from probable cause). These cases are usually when the suspect has been engaged in unusual or illegal conduct, like driving a car while swerving, with the smell of weed in the car evident when the officer approaches.
Like searches, seizures can apply to property or a person, and arises if there is meaningful interference with that person’s freedom of movement or possessory interests in certain property (like when it is taken as evidence). Officers are free to question individuals in a public place – especially if you voluntary speak to them. Seizure is not automatic. However, you can always ask if you are being detained in the event you do not wish to speak to them. The key issue is whether someone’s freedom of movement is restrained (such as an arrest or a traffic stop). Citizens are protected from this, even a momentary restraint, unless there are reasonable, objective grounds to detain someone. An officer cannot stop you while you are driving unless they suspect you are driving illegally in some way – such as without a license, or if you broke a traffic law. Additionally, if someone is free to disregard questions from an officer, there is no seizure. This is important to remember in the event you are questioned by officers on the street and later try to suppress evidence on the grounds of a 4th amendment violation – if you voluntarily answer any questions, you have waived any argument under this defense.
In the event an officer ever asks you to search your home or vehicle or person, you can feel free to decline and not give them permission. Many good criminal defense attorneys would advise you to request a warrant before allowing a search of your property or person. While law enforcement can be intimidating, and you should always be respectful and calm around them, you can always assert your constitutionally protected rights by ensuring you have freedom of movement (and asking to leave), or by refusing a search of your property without the proper documentation and grounds.
If you or someone you know needs a top-rated criminal defense attorney, call The Blanch Law Firm today at (212) 736-3900.