Evolving search and seizure laws provide example of need for an attorney

The Supreme Court issues opinions that clarify Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

One of the most fundamental guarantees of the United States Constitution is the right of all citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This right is protected by the 4 th Amendment which 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

Over the centuries, Courts have struggled with the application of this fundamental right. What is or is not reasonable? What is the proper remedy when police violate the 4 th Amendment.

The Supreme Court of the United States has issued many opinions attempting to clarify the scope and application of the 4 th Amendment. All criminal defense attorneys need to keep up with the rapidly evolving case law, both in state and federal law. One of the more recent opinions comes from a case out of North Carolina. The Court ruled that police officers don't necessarily violate a person's 4 th Amendment rights when they stop a car based on a mistaken understanding of the law.

More on the evolution of search and seizure law

Police must have a reasonable suspicion that a person is breaking the law before pulling them over in their car. In Heien v. North Carolina the officer pulled the defendant over because of a broken taillight. A subsequent search of the vehicle led to the discovery of drugs. As it turns out, it was not a violation of North Carolina law to drive a car with a broken taillight.

In Court, The driver argued that since there was no actual violation of law, the officer could not have had a reasonable suspicion of such to allow for the stop. If his stop was unlawful then the subsequent search of his car was unlawful and the drug evidence should be inadmissible as "fruit of the poisonous tree." The case wound its way through the North Carolina Courts and landed before the Supreme Court in 2014.

In an 8-1 decision the Supreme Court held the police officer's decision to pull Mr. Heien over was based on a "reasonable" mistake of law. Because his mistake was a reasonable one, his suspicion of a violation of law was valid. Thus the traffic stop itself was valid and no 4 th Amendment violation occurred. A reasonable mistake of law will thus now render an otherwise unlawful traffic stop into a "reasonable" and valid one for 4 th Amendement search and seizure purposes.

The decision was recently discussed in an article by NPR, with a legal expert from St. John's University School of Law in New York noting that the decision gives police "more power."

Implications of this decision

Police already have a good deal of power when it comes to traffic stops. Officers may conduct a search of a vehicle during or after a traffic stop in a number of instances. Police often make what are called "pretext stops:" pulling citizens over for minor traffic infractions in order to expand the scope of the traffic stop to search the car or its occupants. Once a police officer has lawfully stopped a car for a traffic infraction, the officer need only develop a reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity before prolonging and expanding the scope of the traffic stop into a broader investigation. The Supreme Court has also recently held that a K-9 dog sniff is not a search, and that K-9 dogs sniffing the outside of a car during a lawful traffic stop is an acceptable practice. Minor traffic stops often lead to broader investigations and additional searches and seizures.

Evidence gathered during these searches may be used to build a criminal case. However, legal and factual defenses are available. Officers are required to follow strict protocol during these stops and searches, a failure to do so could lead to a reduction or dismissal in charges. State Constitut ional and statutory provisions may also further limit the officer's authority in such cases.

Role of an attorney

Those who are charged with a crime resulting from a search and seizure are wise to seek the counsel of an experienced search and seizure attorney. This legal professional will review the details of your case and design a defense strategy that better ensures your rights are protected.

Keywords: criminal defense


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