Are We Safe from Police Searches and Seizures?

“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.”

That’s the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution.  Seems pretty clear doesn’t it?  It’s an important part of our rights as citizens to be free of inappropriate government intrusion.  Yet, over the years, exceptions have been made to the 4th Amendment wherein warrants are not necessary.  Here are the exceptions:

    • Terry Stops – brief detentions in which an officer has reasonable suspicion that a person was involved in criminal activity.
    • Search Upon Arrest – Florida courts hold that officers are justified in searching a person’s property upon making an arrest.
    • Automobile Searches – There is a lesser expectation of privacy in a vehicle than in one’s home. Because a vehicle is mobile, a suspect can quickly drive away with any suspected contraband, an officer can seize an item without a warrant if it is in plain view during a traffic stop.
    • Home Searches – There must be probable cause for an officer to search a person’s home without a warrant.
    • Consent – If a person consents to a search, they effectively waive their Fourth Amendment right against unlawful searches and the officer does not need to have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to conduct a search.
    • The Exclusionary Rule – A judicially created doctrine that serves as an enforcement mechanism remedies violations of the Fourth Amendment.
    • The Good Faith Exception to the Warrant Requirement – The U.S. Supreme Court created a good faith exception that says if a law enforcement agent acted in good faith, evidence will be admitted.

These exceptions make the 4th Amendment a little less iron clad and some of the exceptions are so vague that they are open to a wide variety of interpretation.  Take for instance, the “Terry Stop”.  What constitutes reasonable suspicion?  What may be reasonable for a police officer may not be reasonable for an ordinary citizen.  The “good faith” exception is my favorite.  It is completely subjective on its face.  It requires a subjective determination of another person’s intent.

U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of United States v. Herring which addressed the question whether police officers may rely in “good faith” on erroneous information (inaccurately alleging the existence of an outstanding arrest warrant against a suspect) without compromising the resulting evidence, when the source of the error is another law enforcement agency.

The Court held that the answer is yes, provided the error is not sufficiently deliberate and culpable to justify suppression of the evidence.

So, where does that leave us?  The 4th Amendment provides protection from unreasonable searches and seizures but that protection is limited.  It is not a blanket protection and after 9/11 that protection was further weakened by the Patriot Act.  This is not a new issue.  Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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