Search and Seizure

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and requires police to demonstrate “probable cause” to a judge in order to obtain a search warrant. Courts have developed numerous interpretations and exceptions over the past two centuries, but the basic rule remains that individuals should be secure where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Police do not always observe these rules, of course, and prosecutors may try to introduce evidence in a criminal case obtained through an unreasonable search and seizure. In such a situation, a skilled Washington criminal defense attorney can move to suppress the evidence and safeguard the defendant’s rights.

Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment protects people’s privacy “in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” meaning that it prohibits police from searching anywhere a person might have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” It also requires a police officer or other official, in order to obtain a search warrant, to swear or affirm that they have probable cause to suspect the search will turn up evidence of a crime. A warrant must give a specific description of the location and the subject of the search.

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

An individual is only protected by the Fourth Amendment in places where they can reasonably expect privacy. Courts have held that this includes anything a person has on their person, in their home, on their property, or in their car or other vehicle. It does not necessarily include public places or locations owned or controlled by another person.

Probable Cause and Exigent Circumstances

A law enforcement officer must provide a judge with evidence supporting probable cause in order to obtain a search warrant. The warrant authorizes an officer to search specified locations in search of specified people or items. Officers are not permitted to expand their search beyond those specific authorizations.

In certain situations, known as “exigent circumstances,” courts have held that police may enter private property or otherwise infringe on a person’s privacy without a warrant, such as if they reasonably believe that it is the only way to prevent destruction or loss of evidence. The state has the burden of proving that no less-intrusive means were available.

Plain View Rule

Another exception provides that police may search areas that are plainly visible, and may seize contraband or other evidence that is in plain view. If, for example, an officer serves a search warrant that authorizes the search of a closet, the officer is permitted to seize contraband that is sitting out in plain view between where the officer entered the house and the closet.

“Fruit of the Poisonous Tree”

Evidence obtained in a search that violates a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights is not admissible in court as evidence of the defendant’s guilt. Such evidence is known as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” because the state would not have the evidence had it not violated the defendant’s rights. A defendant can move to suppress the evidence, and the state must prove to the court that the search was either permitted by a warrant or justified by an exception.

If you have been charged with a criminal offense in Tacoma or elsewhere in Washington, you should seek the assistance of a Washington criminal defense lawyer with experience in our state’s legal system. Courts, prosecutors, and police have a duty to respect the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, but a criminal defense lawyer’s job is often to make sure those officials do their jobs. I have protected the essential constitutional rights of criminal defendants throughout western Washington for over fifteen years. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (888) 312-3093.