Search and Seizure: Understanding Your Fourth Amendment Rights

Search and Seizure: Understanding Your Fourth Amendment Rights

Students across the United States learn about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights multiple times before graduating high school. However, learning the nuances of each amendment and when precisely the government oversteps is not an exact science. The rights granted to U.S. residents by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, including fourth amendment rights, are not absolute and are not always clear.

The Fourth Amendment protects U.S. residents from search and seizure. However, the government can conduct searches and seize property in certain situations, particularly if someone has been arrested for a crime. Below we take a closer look at the Fourth Amendment and exceptions to your protections so you have a better understanding of your Fourth Amendment rights.

An Overview of Your Fourth Amendment Rights

Ultimately, the Fourth Amendment became part of the Bill of Rights to provide privacy to people from the government and protect personal property. The Fourth Amendment reads:

“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, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The Fourth Amendment initially focused on personal property, but the United States Supreme Court later expanded rights under the amendment to include a person’s right to privacy.

What Are Search and Seizure?

Specific legal definitions apply to whether a search or seizure has occurred. A search does not occur unless the following two conditions apply:

  • An individual has an expectation of privacy.
  • Others in the same situation would find this expectation is reasonable.

The Fourth Amendment also protects people against unreasonable seizures. From a legal standpoint, a seizure occurs when police or the government interfere with someone’s ability to possess personal property. For example, police officers might take property away from its owner for evidence or remove someone from their home during an eviction.

Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement has the right to search and seize your property if they obtain a warrant that explicitly dictates the search and seizure parameters. However, scenarios exist in which law enforcement can engage in warrantless searches.

Legal Exceptions to a Search Warrant

The following situations are exceptions to the Fourth Amendment search warrant requirement:

You Give Consent to Law Enforcement

If the police ask to search your home, car, or other personal property, they do not need a warrant in most cases. You have control over the scope of consent you give and whether you consented voluntarily. Additionally, someone else cannot give consent for law enforcement to search your property. You have the right to refuse a search, and it’s in your best interest to do so.

You Have Been Arrested

Law enforcement has the legal right to search someone and their immediate surroundings for weapons and other harmful items. If the arrest occurs while driving or riding in a vehicle, police also have the right to search the inside of the vehicle without a warrant.

Illegal Items Are in Plain View

If a police officer has probable cause to search property, they have the right to seize objects in plain view without a warrant.

You Are in Your Vehicle

Those in vehicles have a reduced right to privacy under the law because automobiles typically are not homes or a place where people store personal items. Also, people can quickly move their vehicles to avoid a warrant in a specific jurisdiction. However, law enforcement cannot randomly stop and search your car. They must have a reason to stop your vehicle, including suspected DUI, criminal activity, a moving violation, or an equipment violation. They cannot search your trunk, glove compartment, or other hidden areas of your car without probable cause of criminal activity.

Exigent Circumstances

If law enforcement believes they must take immediate action to prevent harm to themselves or others or prevent the disappearance or destruction of evidence or another pressing reason, they can conduct a warrantless search. Exigent circumstances that could lead to a warrantless search include:

  • Someone about to flush illegal drugs or other contraband down a toilet
  • Providing emergency services to a homeowner
  • Entering a burning building to extinguish a fire and find its cause

Above are some of the most common examples of warrantless searches; however, other situations also occur. For example, police can also enter homes without a warrant if they are in hot pursuit of a criminal suspect.

The most important thing to remember is that you have Fourth amendment rights even if you have been arrested for a crime. Police officers have to follow the letter of the law and sometimes violate peoples’ rights. Any evidence they collect after an unlawful search and seizure is admissible in court because of the “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” doctrine, so it’s in your best interest to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can review the facts of your case and the details of your arrest.

Author Bio

Botnick Law Firm

Robert Botnick is CEO and Managing Partner of Botnick Law Firm, a criminal defense law firm in Cleveland, OH. With more than 19 years of experience in criminal defense, he has zealously represented clients in a wide range of legal matters, including DUIs, misdemeanors, felonies, domestic violence, and other criminal charges.

Robert received his Juris Doctor from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University and is a member of the Ohio State Bar Association. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including the Best DUI Lawyers in Cleveland award by

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