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Supreme Court Just Narrowed When Police Can Conduct a Search

The Fourth Amendment grants the right to be free from unreasonable searches. But what is an unreasonable search? This is a question that has often been addressed by the Supreme Court.  In a recent case, police attempted to stop a man who was driving home. The police officer had followed the driver and noticed he was playing music loudly and honking his horn. The officer activated his lights to pull him over just seconds before the driver pulled into his driveway and entered his garage. When the driver began to shut the garage door, the officer stuck his foot under the garage door to stop it from shutting.

The officer conducted field sobriety tests and arrested the driver for driving under the influence. The driver fought to have the charges dismissed, arguing that the officer essentially entered his home without a warrant. The driver argued that if the Supreme Court allowed these charges to stand — if it stated that the driver’s actions were serious enough to grant the officer the ability to violate the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights – that same rationale could be applied to police officers chasing down teenagers who breaking curfew.  How far do we want police to be able to go?

Was the search legal?

The officer gathered the evidence to support the charges by conducting a search, so the salient question is, “Was the search legal?” In order for it to be legal, police must have conducted the search after getting a warrant or after meeting an exception to the protections granted by the Fourth Amendment. Exceptions may include a situation in which the police are concerned that an individual would destroy evidence, escape, or harm others.

Ultimately, the justices ruled that the circumstances here did not meet any exception to the warrant requirement, so the Court ruled in favor of the driver. In so doing, the Supreme Court announced that police cannot pursue those suspected of having committed a misdemeanor.  The suspected crime must be a felony, or the search will not meet the requirements of the existing Fourth Amendment exceptions.

What happens if the police do not follow the rules?

The law requires police to have probable cause and/or a warrant in order to conduct a search. A failure to meet that standard – or to meet the standard of an exception—is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. When the Fourth Amendment is violated, the police cannot use the evidence gathered from the search. This rule – the “Exclusionary Rule” – often means the prosecution may have to drop the charges.

This case shows the importance of a careful review of the procedures used and actions taken by the police to gather evidence to support criminal charges. The timing and reasoning for the stop here were enough to call into question whether or not the police officer followed proper protocol. These are just a few of the questions that must be asked to determine whether an accused has a procedural and/or Constitutional defense to a criminal charge. This case underscores the importance of hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney who is well-versed in Constitutional and criminal law.


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