Illegal Search and Seizure
Illegal Search and Seizure
In America, we are protected from illegal search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution (Fourth Amendment), as well as from many other overreaches of government power. Pennsylvania residents are also protected under Article I §8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. While Fourth Amendment decisions establish search and seizure rules, individual states are free to offer increased protection to their citizens.
Seeking Top Criminal Trial Lawyers When It Matters
Lee Ciccarelli and his criminal team our experienced and devoted to fighting for our clients. Contact our federal criminal defense team today if you are seeking a federal criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania. We serve clients in Pennsylvania including the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area, including West Chester, Lancaster, Norristown, Media, King of Prussia, Doylestown, Harrisburg, Reading and Lebanon. Contact us today by email or call us at (610) 692-8700.
Protections from illegal search and seizure effectively limit the ways in which law enforcement can investigate and arrest anyone suspected of a crime. When the illegal search and seizure laws are violated, the prosecution is then prohibited from using any illegally obtained evidence in court to secure a conviction.
Under both the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I §8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, a subjective expectation of privacy must exist, and that expectation must be recognized as reasonably by society. Illegal search and seizure rules as most of us understand them apply primarily to our homes and vehicles but can encompass much more.
Under the Fourth Amendment, “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…” The Pennsylvania Constitution says much the same thing as the U.S. Constitution. In other words, there must be a clear and compelling reason for law enforcement to search a citizen, and in most cases, probable cause must be shown to a judge who will then issue a search warrant to search a specific area for a specific item.
Are There Differences Between the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution?
As noted, states may afford citizens more protections regarding illegal search and seizure but cannot afford them less protection than given in the U.S. Constitution. While the two are currently very similar, Pennsylvania has, at times provided for more protection of individual privacy than the U.S. Supreme Court.
The most significant difference between U.S. law and Pennsylvania law regarding searches and seizures relates to the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. While the U.S. Constitution allows evidence to be admitted at trial even when that evidence was obtained via an invalid search warrant (so long as the officers were acting under a good-faith belief that the warrant was valid), Pennsylvania has rejected the good-faith exception.
Very recently (December 22, 2020), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made changed a federal rule adopted in 2014 in an effort to grant Pennsylvania citizens greater protections under the illegal search and seizure rules. In 2014, Pennsylvania, like the federal government, allowed law enforcement to search automobiles without the benefit of a search warrant.
The theory behind this move was that since a vehicle is inherently mobile, vehicles then fall under the “exigent circumstances” exception (evidence could be destroyed or lost if the search warrant were not conducted immediately) that allows a vehicle to be searched without a warrant.
As an example, if a police officer stopped a vehicle due to a broken taillight, then believed they smelled marijuana while speaking to the driver, the officer could legally search the vehicle based on their own notion of probable cause.
Pennsylvania has now implemented stronger citizen protections regarding the search of a vehicle, no longer allowing law enforcement to search a vehicle based on probable cause alone. The officer must have a warrant, or there must be a strong exception to the warrant requirement (exigent circumstances). These exigent circumstances will be determined on a case-by-case basis, with Pennsylvania courts determining whether the stated exigent circumstances justified the warrantless search.
How is “Reasonable” Defined?
Unfortunately, the definition of probable cause is not clearly defined under the Fourth Amendment, leading the courts to adopt the “reasonableness” standard. Whether a search and seizure is considered “reasonable,” is assessed on a case-by-case basis, with some courts being much more lenient than others. If a “reasonably prudent” person would agree that the search was warranted, then the court is likely to allow any evidence seized to be admissible. For this reason, it can be difficult to challenge the probable cause doctrine—difficult, but not impossible.
Is a “Stop and Frisk” Excluded from Search and Seizure Laws?
Under the Fourth Amendment, a procedure known as a “stop and frisk,” is not considered a search as a result of a 1968 case (Terry v. Ohio) that ruled law enforcement can stop and frisk suspects in public without probable cause and without a warrant. A stop and frisk cannot go beyond patting down a suspect’s outer clothing, or a warrant is required.
A stop and frisk is considered a “brief, non-intrusive” stop of a subject the police have reasonable suspicion to believe is armed and dangerous or is about to commit a crime. As you might imagine, the definition of a “reasonable” stop and frisk is very subjective. According to the Terry decision, a “reasonably prudent” officer must believe his or her own safety or that of others is at risk in order to justify a stop and frisk.
What Exceptions to Search and Seizure Laws Currently Exist?
The U.S. Constitution has created certain exceptions to the search warrant requirements which are meant to balance the rights of the individual against the interests of the government. The most common exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant include:
- Searches associated with an arrest—If a police officer is making a lawful arrest, he or she has the right to search the person being arrested, and the area around the person without benefit of a search warrant.
- If the individual in question has given police consent to search his or her person or property, then there is no requirement for a search warrant.
- If evidence of a crime is in plain view of law enforcement, then no warrant is required to seize that evidence and use it against the defendant. Two caveats to this are that if the officer is in a location illegally, then the plain view exception does not apply, and the plain view exception does not include the use of vision-enhancing devices. (i.e., if an officer is using binoculars to look through an individual’s window, then this is not considered “plain view,” even if evidence of a crime is seen.
- If officers believe there is an emergency regarding evidence—i.e., the evidence is in danger of being destroyed, or a suspect may potentially escape—then exigent circumstances exist that allow the officer to conduct a search or enter premises without a warrant.
In practice, these exceptions to search and seizure laws allow police to override your privacy concerns, conducting a search of your person, your home, your boat, your office, your barn, your personal or business documents, your bank account, or virtually anything else you own.
What is the Exclusionary Rule?
When a court finds an unreasonable search occurred, then the evidence seized during that illegal search is not allowed to be used against the defendant during a criminal prosecution. This is known as the exclusionary rule, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. There are two distinct views on the exclusionary rule. Some believe criminals are allowed to go free simply because the police made a mistake, while others believe these laws exist to deter law enforcement from conducting illegal searches. It stands to reason that if a police officer knows any illegally obtained evidence will not be allowed to be presented then an improper search is much less likely.
What Does “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” Mean?
The exclusionary rule makes evidence gathered from an illegal search generally inadmissible, then goes a step further. Any additional evidence that is derived from the illegally obtained evidence is also not admissible. This is called the “fruit of the poisonous tree;” the “tree” being the original illegally seized evidence, and the “fruit” being any additional evidence generated from the illegally seized evidence.
One example of “fruit of the poisonous tree”: Law enforcement illegally wiretaps a suspected drug dealer. While listening to the wiretap, one person says he left drugs in a warehouse on 46th street. The police go to the building and find the drugs. Not only are the conversations from the illegal wiretap inadmissible, but the drugs found in the building are also inadmissible as fruit of the poisonous tree.
Regarding the exclusionary rule and fruit of the poisonous tree, while many defendants believe that if a search was illegal the case must be dismissed, this is not always true. If the prosecutor has other legally obtained evidence (so long as it is not tied to the illegally obtained evidence), then the case can continue. Further, illegally seized evidence can be considered by judges, post-conviction, as they decide on a sentence for the defendant. In some cases, the illegally obtained evidence can also be used to attack the credibility of the defendant as well.
Your Rights Under Search and Seizure Laws
As a citizen of the United States and the state of Pennsylvania, you have the right to remain free from unreasonable or illegal government searches and seizures. While the exclusionary rule is in place precisely for the purpose of protecting citizens from illegal search and seizure, the question of whether a search was illegal is often the deciding factor in a criminal trial. It is extremely important for those who feel their rights regarding search and seizures have been violated to immediately speak to a knowledgeable, experienced Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney as this can be an extremely complex area of the law.
Get the Help You Need
You want a team of experienced, passionate federal crimes lawyer that are ready to fight for you. Contact the Ciccarelli legal team today at (610) 692-8700. We serve federal criminal clients throughout Pennsylvania and are convenient to our clients with office locations in Philadelphia, West Chester, Lancaster, Springfield, Malvern, Plymouth Meeting, Lancaster, and Radnor and also available for phone and video meetings. You can have our lawyers provide an honest and thorough evaluation of your case when you call (610) 692-8700 or complete an online contact form to schedule a free, confidential consultation.