The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides:
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.
Note that the protections therein do not protect against ALL searches and seizures, just UNREASONABLE ones. This distinction has caused much debate over the years in courts all around the nation, and it eventually led to what’s referred to as the Exclusionary Rule and tests stemming therefrom to determine whether a search or seizure was reasonable or unreasonable.
“The exclusionary rule … is a remedy adopted by the[e Supreme Court] to effectuate the Fourth Amendment right to citizens to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures …” See Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 254 (1983)(internal quotations omitted)).
In short, if a search or seizure is found to be “reasonable,” then it is not in violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights. If it fails the test, then it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the search and/or seizure was illegal, and any evidence of illegal activities stemming from that search/seizure become what’s referred to as “the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree,” (See Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963)), and that evidence must be “excluded” from the case under the Exclusionary Rule. All such Fruit must be suppressed and cannot be used as a basis to prosecute or prove a charged crime. If the charged crime relied only on such suppressed evidence, the entire case must then be dismissed.
This is done out of a desire to ensure that agents and officers act properly in their relation to the public and the people they’re charged with protecting. If all an officer needed to do was go door to door and search a person’s home whenever they so chose until they found illegal items to support a crime and/or prosecution, a citizen’s civil rights to privacy would mean nothing. Because of the protections granted by our forefathers in the Fourth Amendment, in order to search a person’s home without their permission, officers or agents need a signed warrant from a court permitting the intrusion on the citizen’s privacy, and that warrant needs to be backed by “probable cause” (some reasonable evidence that supports the agent’s or officer’s suspicion that criminal activity is afoot). See Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 258, 260 (1983)(The exclusionary “rule is thought to deter unlawful police activity in part through the nurturing of respect for Fourth Amendment values. … The deterrent purpose of the exclusionary rule necessarily assumes that the police have engaged in willful, or at the very least negligent, conduct which has deprived the defendant of some right. By refusing to admit evidence gained as a result of such conduct, the courts hope to instill in those particular investigating officers, or in their future counterparts, a greater degree of care toward the rights of an accused.”)(internal quotations omitted).
When officers perform a traffic stop, say, for a speeding violation, the Fourth Amendment limits the interaction and what it may entail. A traffic stop is considered a de minimis intrusion (or minor intrusion) on a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights so long as such traffic stop conclude after the ticket or warning is delivered and the citizen’s license and registration are returned. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). At that point, normally, the citizen is free to go. An officer may only extend such traffic stop if they have a “reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.” See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). In some cases, that can include waiting for a police dog to arrive to perform a perimeter “sniff” search for illegal controlled substances. See Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015). However, the United States Supreme Court has held that such a wait cannot be overly long without offending the Fourth Amendment and rendering any evidence found in that search illegal. See Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015)(ruling that an eight-minute detention to wait for a dog to arrive to perform a dog “sniff” of the defendant’s vehicle offended his Fourth Amendment rights and rendered the evidence inadmissible).
There are other such de minimis intrusions permitted by law. See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434 (1991)(Simple encounters, where an officer “approaches an individual and asks a few questions,” are always reasonable because they do not involve a “seizure.”).
Sometimes such stops do offend the Fourth Amendment, however. Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Amendment (with a few clarifiers) in a case called Utah v. Strieff, 111 S.Ct. 2382 (2016), a case in which police officers monitoring a house suspected of illegal controlled substance activity approached and searched the defendant over his objections — who had gone into and come out of the house in a short period of time — and found illegal controlled substances in his pocket. While the Supreme Court noted that the officers did not have enough to constitute reasonable articulable suspicion to search the defendant, the Court ruled that an outstanding valid warrant for the defendant’s arrest that existed at the time of the search would have been enough to justify such search, despite the fact the officers searching the defendant at the time had no knowledge of such warrant. As such, the Court upheld the conviction and the evidence used against the defendant there.
In the coming years, the courts are likely to continue the battle, as they have for so long, over the breadth of Fourth Amendment protections. The pendulum swings both ways over time, often gnawing away at the protections our forefathers intended each citizen possess and maintain in a nation they intended to be just. To avoid becoming a “police state,” the Fourth Amendment is essential. Should it one day flounder, democracy will surely fall shortly behind it.
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