By now most civilians know that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was written to protect people from unreasonable intrusion by the government in the form of law enforcement officers into their homes, business, vehicles, or other property. This includes law enforcement officers stopping people walking on the street or driving their cars and being arrested, or searching their homes or businesses.
The judicial system has put in place a number of legal safeguards designed to ensure law enforcement officers only interfere with a person’s Fourth Amendment rights when very specific conditions have been met and by using approved methods.
What is Protected by the Fourth Amendment?
The Fourth Amendment, which covers “search and seizure” offers protections under criminal law to:
• A police officer’s physical arrest or “seizure” of a citizen via a stop or arrest.
• Law enforcement searches of items and places to which a citizen has a reasonable expectation of privacy, including their person, purses, wallets, clothes, house, hotel room, apartment, vehicle, place of business, and many others.
When Does Fourth Amendment Protection Come into Play?There are a number of times when the Fourth Amendment can be used to provide constitutional protection to an individual, including:
• When a person is stopped by an officer for questioning while walking down the street.
• When a person is pulled over for a minor traffic violation and the officer decides to inspect the contents of the trunk.
• When a person is placed under arrest
• When a law enforcement officer enters a person’s home or place of business and places them under arrest.
• When a law enforcement officer confiscates a person’s personal property or vehicle and places it under their control.
What Does a Law Enforcement Officer Need to Violate the Fourth Amendment?
There are so many situations in which a police officer is required to protect a person’s Fourth Amendment rights that it would be impossible to list them all. However, it is safe to say that in most situations these rights are inviolate unless the law enforcement officer has in his or her possession:
• A valid search warrant issued by a judge
• A valid arrest warrant issued by the courts
• Believes he or she has “probable cause” based on the possibility the individual has committed a crime.
If the above conditions are not met, it is highly likely that the law enforcement officer will be found to have violated the citizen’s rights. Should this happen, the odds are good that any evidence that is collected at this time will be deemed by the courts to be inadmissible in a court of law. This might be great for the person who has been accused of a crime and may even be enough to have the case dismissed. However, it can be a major disaster for the officer and the law enforcement agency who has worked hard to bring the case to court in hopes of a conviction that might keep a true criminal off the streets.