The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects individual citizens “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” It is federal and Colorado State criminal court case-law that has determined exactly what this means relative to your criminal case. The Amendment requires that the police obtain a warrant before searching you, or anything that belongs to you. However, there are many exceptions. Fourth Amendment law is mostly about those exceptions. In other words, when can the government (the police) search you, your pockets, your car, your home, your business, and so on? When can they search you, or your places, without a warrant?
Reasonable Expectation of Privacy
Reasonable expectation of privacy is a legal concept that tries to define where the boundaries are - in other words - how much of your property, or personal space, is protected by the Constitution? The standard that the judge will use in determining whether your space was violated is whether or not you had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place to be searched.
Stop and Frisk
A police officer can stop you on the sidewalk and “pat down” your pockets on the outside of your clothing only if he has a reasonable suspicion that you may be involved in criminal activity. The officer must be able to state articulable facts that support the notion that the search was reasonable under the circumstances.
Probable cause is the level of certainty, or more accurately stated, likelihood, in the officer’s belief that a search or arrest is necessary. The judge must consider the “totality of the circumstances” when determining whether probable cause existed when the police officer made the decision to search or arrest someone. This is a very vague standard, and the judge has a large amount of discretion when ruling on this question.
Plain View Doctrine
This legal doctrine states that an officer can both arrest a person, or search otherwise protected places, when he observes evidence of criminal activity “in plain view.” For example, an officer at your door has no authority to come in and search your home. However, if he observes evidence of a crime while standing at your door, he is legally allowed to come in and search. This is an exception to the requirement that he have a warrant.
The police are not required to obtain a warrant when there are “exigent circumstances,” which in simple terms means “when it can’t wait.” For example, if the officer hears someone calling for help and screaming within a home, they are able to enter and search, even without a warrant. Another example would be if a fleeing bank robber ran into your home, the police would be allowed to follow and search for the suspect – even though they have no warrant to be in your home.
A person’s Fourth Amendment rights are greatly diminished in any sort of moving vehicle. There are many exceptions to the warrant requirement, that would not exist relative to searching a residence. There are also specific laws regarding border inspections and sobriety checkpoints. This area of Fourth Amendment law is, as you might expect, very important in DUI cases for example.
There are many other exceptions to requirement that the police obtain a warrant before conducting a search. An experienced criminal defense attorney must be able to recognize how the facts of your case will interact with Constitutional law.
You and The Fourth Amendment
Certain types of criminal cases call upon Fourth Amendment law more than others. Drug possession cases are a classic example of a type of case that almost certainly involves Fourth Amendment considerations. How did the police find the illegal drugs? How was the search conducted? Did the police have consent from the person to search? Were there any exceptions to the warrant requirement? These are questions that can only be answered after a careful review of the evidence in your case by a qualified criminal lawyer.
Fruit of the Poisonous Tree
There is a Fourth Amendment doctrine that is called “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree.” It is this doctrine that frequently contributes to the complete dismissal of a criminal charge as a result of an illegal police search. The idea is that any evidence of crime that comes from the illegal search is “fruit” of that illegality, and therefore must be excluded from or “suppressed” in the criminal case. In this analogy, the tree itself is the illegal conduct by the police.
This doctrine can have far-reaching implications. For example, if the police search a person’s car illegally during a traffic stop and find a small amount of marijuana in the center consol, and then arrest the person – the officer can then impound and search the vehicle as a result of the arrest. Imagine that the officer then finds evidence of a bank robbery in the trunk. The defendant is then charged with bank robbery. In this example, all evidence of the bank robbery found in the trunk should be suppressed (as should the ticket for possession of marijuana or DUI). Because the police would never have discovered the evidence but for their unconstitutional conduct, all evidence they found will be rejected from the court case because it is fruit of the poisonous tree.