The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects American citizens from unlawful searches and property seizures at the hands of law enforcement or government officials. At the time of the enactment of the Fourth Amendment, U.S. lawmakers realized that granting the government and law enforcement the freedom to search or seize private property without justifiable cause was not conducive to a free society.
The state’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, as well as other state-level provisions concerning search and seizure, offer protections for all Americans. If you believe a law enforcement officer or other government agent violated your Fourth Amendment rights, you have the right to respectfully refuse the search.
Warrants and Probable Cause
The police require a search warrant to investigate private property, and they cannot obtain a warrant without probable cause that the subject of the warrant has committed, is committing, or will commit a criminal act. It’s important to remember this, as some investigators and police officers may attempt to elicit a property owner’s permission to search a property. If a property owner gives express permission for law enforcement to conduct a search of his or her private property, they may do so even without a warrant.
When the police need a warrant to conduct a search or property seizure, they must provide reasonable evidence to constitute probable cause. This does not include a hunch or mere suspicion; a law enforcement officer or government agent must be able to provide some kind of reasonable explanation to justify the issuing of a search warrant. Several factors may come into play, such as the subject of the warrant’s behavior, criminal record, and known associations.
An important distinction exists between “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion.” Probably cause exists when there is evidence of wrongdoing that only a trained police officer or government agent would notice. On the other hand, reasonable suspicion exists when any reasonable person would likely notice the evidence of wrongdoing.
Exceptions to the Search Warrant Rule
Some cases exist in which a police officer can legally conduct a search of private property without a warrant. The most notable example is the motor vehicle exception. A police officer may conduct a search of a vehicle if the officer can establish probable cause. For example, a police officer pulls over a driver for swerving through multiple lanes. Once pulled over, the officer notices empty liquor bottles in the back seat and the strong odor of alcohol. This would be sufficient evidence for the officer to establish probable cause, and the officer would legally have the authority to search the vehicle.
Police may also conduct warrantless searches in emergencies. For example, a police officer responds to a domestic disturbance at a private residence and hears a victim screaming for help inside the home. In this situation, the police officer can legally enter the premises without a warrant to assist the victim.
In Pennsylvania, police may not enter a residence without a warrant unless they can establish probable cause and there is an emergency. They may, however, conduct a motor vehicle search as long as they can establish probable cause. Additionally, Pennsylvania law requires police to act on an issued search warrant within 48 hours of issuing the warrant, and they may only do so between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.r
If you believe a police officer or other official violated your Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful searches and seizures, talk to a criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania as soon as possible. Illegally obtained evidence can render a prosecutor’s case unlawful, so such information can change your entire case.