Every citizen of the United States is guaranteed freedom from “unreasonable search and seizure” by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. It 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.”
The state of Pennsylvania also guarantees its residents similar rights through Article 1, § 8 of its own constitution. It is titled “Security from searches and seizures” and reads:
“The people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions from unreasonable searches and seizures, and no warrant to search any place or to seize any person or things shall issue without describing them as nearly as may be, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation subscribed to by the affiant.”
The intention of these rights is to limit the power that police and other government law-enforcement officials have regarding searching a person or their property, seizing any type of contraband or evidence found in a search, and arresting someone. Their basic function is to ensure that the privacy of all Pennsylvania residents is respected and that we are protected against illegal police search and seizure.
There are, however, circumstances where Fourth Amendment rights do not apply and law enforcement can legally conduct a search of your person, your properties and possessions, your home or office, or your automobile. Exceptions to the rights granted in both the state and federal constitutions have been created by the United States and Pennsylvania supreme courts.
You Have Given Consent To Search
It should go without saying that if any law enforcement officer asks for your permission to conduct a search and you say yes, that officer can then legally conduct a search. It is also then lawful for the officer to seize any contraband or evidence he or she may find as a result of the search.
The Plain View Doctrine
If a law enforcement official can see any type of contraband in plain view, they do not need a search warrant to confiscate it or use it as a cause to make an arrest. The plain view exception is not valid, however, if any vision-enhancing equipment is used (binoculars for example) or if the law enforcement official is at a given location illegally.
Cases Of Lawful Arrest
If a law enforcement officer is making a lawful arrest, he or she can legally search the person being arrested as well as the surrounding area without a search warrant.
Police can search an automobile without a search warrant if they have probable cause to believe that there is contraband in the car or that a crime has been or is being committed.
Before 2014, police in Pennsylvania were not allowed to search an automobile without a search warrant or consent unless there were “exigent circumstances” (see below). In a case involving an appeal to a 2010 vehicle stop, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania changed that interpretation of the law when it issued a ruling stating that police could search a vehicle without a warrant if they had reasonable probable cause.
Exigent Circumstances Exist
The exception for exigent circumstances allows police to conduct a search or enter premises without a warrant if there is some kind of immediate danger. Examples of exigent circumstances could be that lives would be in danger, a suspect could potentially escape, or evidence may be destroyed if no action is taken.
Exclusion Of Evidence Found In Illegal Police Searches
Both U.S. federal and Pennsylvania state laws protect our Fourth Amendment rights through what is known as the exclusionary rule. This is a principle first established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961. The basic concept of this rule is that any evidence found through an illegal police search can not be used to charge or prosecute you.
There is also an extension to this rule known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine”. Under this doctrine, in addition to excluding any evidence obtained through an illegal search, any secondary evidence discovered by examining the initial findings is also inadmissible in court.
For example, let’s say that the police searched your home illegally and found weapons and some sort of indication that contraband such as drugs or stolen goods were being stored at a rented storage facility. They would not be able to use the weapons as evidence against you because they were found through an illegal search. Furthermore, they wouldn’t be able to use the contraband at the storage facility as evidence against you either because they wouldn’t have been aware of it or its location if they hadn’t done the illegal search.
Speak With An Experienced Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorney
If you are being charged with a crime as the result of what you believe to be an illegal police search, the Law Firm of Feeney & Gurwitz can help. In many cases where evidence was gathered through an illegal search, it is possible to have charges reduced or even dropped completely. Getting in touch with an experienced criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible is a crucial part of making that happen.
If you or someone you know is facing charges due to evidence discovered through an illegal police search, we have the knowledge, skill, and experience needed to stand with you and make sure that your rights are protected. Your initial consultation is free and confidential. Contact us by calling (610) 378-7000 to schedule an appointment. We’ll be happy to go over the details of your case and discuss how we can help you.