Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the police are prohibited from conducting a search and seizure without “probable cause.” If you were subjected to an unconstitutional search and seizure, this violation of your Fourth Amendment rights could have significant implications for your criminal case in Pennsylvania. Read on to learn when a search and seizure may be deemed unconstitutional, and to find out what it means if the police searched your car, home, or business in violation of your constitutional rights.

What Constitutes a Search and Seizure?

When the police are investigating a crime, they can collect evidence through a variety of different means. Along with talking to witnesses and inspecting crime scenes, the police can also obtain evidence by conducting searches and seizures at locations where they expect evidence to be available. This includes not only homes and businesses but also vehicles and individuals’ bodies and personal belongings.

Importantly, a “stop and frisk” is not considered a search for Fourth Amendment purposes. In the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio, the Court ruled that the police can stop and frisk suspects in public without probable cause. However, if the police go beyond conducting a frisk of a suspect’s outer clothing, then the interaction may turn into a search and seizure for which probable cause (and potentially a warrant) is required.

When are Searches and Seizures Unconstitutional?

The Fourth Amendment states that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” This means that any search and seizure conducted without a warrant has the potential to be unconstitutional. Additionally, if a court issues a warrant without probable cause, then a warranted search and seizure can violate the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights as well.

The “Reasonableness” Standard for Probable Cause

Despite the fundamental nature of the Fourth Amendment’s protections, what constitutes “probable cause” is not clearly defined. Generally, the courts have adopted a “reasonableness” standard for determining whether probable cause exists in any given scenario, and reasonableness is assessed on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, some courts have been more lenient in finding probable cause where a search and seizure are part of an investigation into a serious criminal offense. This means that challenging probable cause can be difficult. But, it is not impossible, there are court decisions that provide guidance for challenging the reasonableness of both warranted and warrantless searches and seizures.

Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

While a warrant issued upon probable cause is required before the police can conduct a search and seizure in most cases, there are some exceptions to this general rule. These exceptions include:

  • Consent – If a criminal suspect consents to a warrantless search, then the police can conduct a search and seize evidence without a warrant.
  • Exigent Circumstances – If lives are in danger or the police are in hot pursuit of a criminal suspect, the police can enter onto private property without a warrant.
  • Plain View – If the police can see evidence of criminal activity in plain view, then they can enter onto private property and secure the evidence in order to prevent it from being destroyed.
  • Items Place in the Garbage – Once an item is placed on the curb for pickup as garbage, it is considered “abandoned” and may be searched and seized without a warrant.

If any of these exceptions apply, then a warrantless search and seizure – and potentially even a search and seizure conducted without probable cause – will not constitute a Fourth Amendment violation.

What Are Your Rights After an Unconstitutional Search or Seizure?

What if the police violated your rights under the Fourth Amendment? What are your rights if the police conducted an unlawful search or seizure without probable cause?

If the police secured evidence against you in violation of your Fourth Amendment rights, then the law states that this evidence must be excluded from your criminal case. In other words, the evidence is legally inadmissible in court, and the prosecution cannot use it against you. This applies not only to evidence collected during the illegal search but also to any evidence the police obtained using the evidence collected during the illegal search (this subsequently-obtained evidence is referred to as “fruit of the poisonous tree”).

However, in order to benefit from this “exclusionary rule,” you need to assert your Fourth Amendment rights in court. Illegally-obtained evidence will not be excluded from your case automatically, and there is a good chance that the prosecution will argue against exclusion. As a defendant facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania, it is up to you to defend yourself, and you cannot expect the police, the prosecutor’s office, or the judge to make your case for you.

What Should You Do Next?

If you believe that the police obtained evidence against you in violation of your Fourth Amendment rights in Pennsylvania, you should:

1. Write Down as Many Details as You Can Remember

When and where did the search take place? What items were seized? Did the officer present you with a search warrant? What police department was the officer from? What did you say to the officer – did you say anything that could have reasonably been construed as consent? The more details you can remember, the easier it will be for your attorney to assess your legal rights.

2. Learn More about Your Case

When facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania, there are numerous potential defenses available. Even if the evidence the police obtained during their search is admissible in court, you could still have various grounds for seeking to avoid a guilty verdict at trial. For more information, we encourage you to read:

Regardless of the circumstances at hand, the best way to protect yourself is to promptly discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense attorney. To schedule a confidential initial consultation in Philadelphia, call us at 267-758-2228 or tell us how to reach you online now.