Search and Seizure laws have become the most complex in recent history. The United States Supreme Court and a few U.S. Appeals Courts have decided cases that revolve around this complexity. Several judicial reviews have been handed down in this article to form a guideline for the police who effect search and seizures upon individuals and vehicles. These laws will greatly benefit both the law enforcement officer and the common person if a situation ever arises where these laws must be enacted.
Probable cause is most often at the center of a search and seizure. Technically, probable cause means – apparent and reliable facts that create a reasonable belief that a crime has been or is being committed. In a 1986 supreme court case Malley v. Briggs, it was decided that the police are not entitled to absolute immunity from civil damages, if officers proceeded with a lack of probable cause. This decision was a big victory for the people s rights. It made it so that the police may no longer rely blindly on the authority of a magistrate, and they can be held accountable for there actions.
In Minnesota v. Dickerson -1993- a man was seen evasively leaving a building known for cocaine traffic. Officers stopped him and subjected him to a pat-down. They felt a large lump in his pocket and proceeded to remove it. The lump was identified as cocaine and the man was arrested. Unfortunately for the police, the evidence was surpressed because the officers never thought the lump to be a weapon, and therefore any further investigation was unconstitutional. The reason for this goes back to a 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio, where the court allowed for pat-down if they felt endangered. The court allowed for the search for weapons, but not anything else in this decision.
Automobile searches have proven very controversial. Warrantless searches may be conducted when they follow a lawful arrest or when probable cause has been gathered. However, this type of investigation often incurs confusion with its applicability to each individual case.
In New York v. Belton – 1981- a search centered on an examination of the passengers compartment that began after the occupants had been legally arrested and placed, in handcuffs, on the sidewalk. A jacket containing cocaine was then discovered inside the car. The Supreme Court found this search to be constitutional and incident to a lawful arrest. The Court also said that any container could be searched whether it was open or closed, this took away any privacy that the suspect had. This means that searches of closed or open glove compartments, consoles, or other objects anywhere within the car, as well as luggage, boxes, bags, and clothing could all be searched during a legal arrest and all the evidence could be used in a court of law.
United States v. Ross – 1982- gave a much clearer picture of the search and seizure laws. This case occurred in the District of Columbia when an informant gave officers a drug dealers description. The police also received information that the dealer stored narcotics in his vehicle. The vehicle was later spotted and the driver was arrested. An officer seized and opened a sealed paper bag that contained heroin. The vehicle was later brought to the station where more incriminating evidence was found. This case made it possible for officers to search anywhere in the vehicle that may conceal the evidence that they have probable cause to believe is there. For example, probable cause to believe that illegal aliens are being transported in a van will not justify a warrantless search of a suitcase.
The consent to search has become a very effective and important part of legal search and seizures. This investigative tool is a boon to the criminal justice system from the higher courts in that it returns limited power for conducting warrantless searches to patrol officers. It is more of a gift when one realizes that suspects often grant permission to conduct a search regardless of if they are actually concealing evidence that could get them arrested. Unlike other aspects of search and seizure, the consent to search is not confused with technicalities that protect criminals.
The consent to search must be wholly voluntary; it may not be coerced or implied in any manner. A trooper in South Carolina received some skepticism from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding his investigative work in United States v. Lattimore – June 1996. The trooper stopped Lattimore for speeding and requested consent to search his vehicle. Permission was verbally granted by Lattimore to conduct the search, but the trooper asked him to sign a consent form, which he inevitably signed. The trooper conducted a search and found 95 grams of cocaine base and drug paraphernalia. This search was found valid because he both verbally gave consent and signed a waiver. Although in a discussion between the two it appeared apparent by the trooper s remarks that if he had refused the search a drug dog would have been called in to search his car. This means that regardless of consent that the vehicle would have been searched.
Search and seizure is a powerful tool for law enforcement but one that any person would take as a personal insult. Law enforcement personnel must be educated with the legal and illegal procedures of this investigatory process for making a mistake can carry serious consequences. In 1995, a measure was introduced to the House of Representatives that would provide the Fourth Amendment with an addition regarding search and seizure. This bill would have allowed unlawfully seized evidence to be considered in court if police had a reasonable belief that they were acting legally. The bill was rejected with a vote of 303 to 121. If this bill had passed it would have basically been saying that it is alright for the police to act ignorantly. This would have been a huge mistake and it is astonishing that a 121 legislatures voted for it.
Search and seizure of the individual and of the automobile is a complex issue in which the rules seem to change often. The United States Supreme Court decisions involving the Fourth Amendment are designed to guide police conduct. Notwithstanding, the police should accept the Court s determinations as a learning tool and continually educate themselves. As a result of the instability of search and seizure law, it is imperative that we trust in our police to protect our rights as well as theirs.