Illegal search and seizure is the stuff of many crime dramas on TV, but it is also a frequent concern for people in the real world. Can a law officer search your car during a traffic stop? Can an officer search your home without a warrant and take away your laptop?
The Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures through the Fourth Amendment. The keyword here is "unreasonable." There is no guarantee of protection against searches and seizures that the law deems reasonable.
Our founders saw the need
Congress passed the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution on September 25, 1789, and ratified it on December 15, 1791. In part, this amendment says that people have the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures." In our modern world, a judge must approve the whole process of search and seizure and issue a warrant only if there is probable cause to justify the action.
Exceptions to the rule
The authorities do not always require warrants. For example, if a law officer suspects that criminal activity may be going on, he may stop an individual to ask reasonable questions stemming from those suspicions. An officer may also search a vehicle without a warrant during a traffic stop, commence a pat-down of the vehicle occupants or walk a dog trained in narcotics detection around the perimeter of the car. An officer may enter your home without a warrant if there is probable cause. The police may even take away the laptop, which may hold incriminating information, if it is in plain view.
The exclusionary rule
The Fourth Amendment is often a part of criminal proceedings. In the mid-twentieth century, the Supreme Court decided that evidence seized by police during an illegal search could not be used in court. This is the exclusionary rule.
If you believe the authorities searched your home or car illegally, you can consult an attorney to learn how this intrusion affects your rights under the Fourth Amendment.