Search and Seizure

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Search and Seizure

A hunt by law enforcement officials for property or communications believed to be evidence of crime, and the act of taking possession of this property.

In International Law, the right of ships of war, as regulated by treaties, to examine a merchant vessel during war in order to determine whether the ship or its cargo is liable to seizure.


Search and seizure is a necessary exercise in the ongoing pursuit of criminals. Searches and seizures are used to produce evidence for the prosecution of alleged criminals. The police have the power to search and seize, but individuals are protected against Arbitrary, unreasonable police intrusions. Freedom from unrestricted search warrants was critical to American colonists.

Under England's rule, many searches were unlimited in scope and conducted without justification. Customs officials could enter the homes of colonists at will to search for violations of customs and trade laws, and suspicionless searches were carried out against outspoken political activists. Searches in the colonies came to represent governmental oppression.

To guard against arbitrary police intrusions, the newly formed United States in 1791 ratified the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which states:

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.

State Action

Law enforcement officers are entrusted with the power to conduct investigations, make arrests, perform searches and seizures of persons and their belongings, and occasionally use lethal force in the line of duty. But this power must be exercised within the boundaries of the law, and when police officers exceed those boundaries they jeopardize the admissibility of any evidence collected for prosecution. By and large, the Fourth Amendment and the case law interpreting it establish these boundaries.

The safeguards enumerated by the Fourth Amendment only apply against State Action, namely action taken by a governmental official or at the direction of a governmental official. Thus, actions taken by state or federal law enforcement officials or private persons working with law enforcement officials will be subject to the strictures of the Fourth Amendment. Bugging, Wiretapping, and other related snooping activity performed by purely private citizens, such as private investigators, do not receive Fourth Amendment scrutiny.

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

Individuals receive no Fourth Amendment protection unless they can demonstrate that they have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place that was searched or the property that was seized. The U.S. Supreme Court explained that what "a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection…. But what he seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 88 S. Ct. 507, 19 L. Ed. 2d 576 (1976). In general the Court has said that individuals enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in their own bodies, Personal Property, homes, and business offices. Individuals also enjoy a qualified expectation of privacy in their automobiles.

Individuals ordinarily possess no reasonable expectation of privacy in things like bank records, vehicle location and vehicle paint, garbage left at roadside for collection, handwriting, the smell of luggage, land visible from a public place, and other places and things visible in plain or open view. Houseguests typically do not possess a reasonable expectation of privacy in the homes they are visiting, especially when they do not stay overnight and their sole purpose for being inside the house is to participate in criminal activity such as a drug transaction. Minnesota v. Carter, 525 U.S. 83, 119 S. Ct. 469, 142 L. Ed. 2d 373 (1998). Similarly, a defendant showing only that he was a passenger in a searched car has not shown an expectation of privacy in the car or its contents. Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 99 S. Ct. 421, 58 L. Ed. 2d 387 (1978). Both the houseguest and the motor vehicle passenger must assert a property or possessory interest in the home or motor vehicle before a court will recognize any Fourth Amendment privacy interests such that would prevent a police officer from searching those places without first obtaining a warrant.

Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion

Once it has been established that an individual possesses a reasonable expectation of privacy in a place to be searched or a thing to be seized, the Fourth Amendment's protections take hold, and the question then becomes what are the nature of those protections. Police officers need no justification to stop someone on a public street and ask questions, and individuals are completely entitled to refuse to answer any such questions and go about their business. However, a police officer may only search people and places when the officer has probable cause or reasonable suspicion to suspect criminal activity.

"Probable cause" means that the officer must possess sufficiently trustworthy facts to believe that a crime has been committed. In some cases, an officer may need only a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to conduct a limited search. Reasonable suspicion means that the officer has sufficient knowledge to believe that criminal activity is at hand. This level of knowledge is less than that of probable cause, so reasonable suspicion is usually used to justify a brief frisk in a public area or a traffic stop at roadside. To possess either probable cause or reasonable suspicion, an officer must be able to cite specific articulable facts to warrant the intrusion. Items related to suspected criminal activity found in a search may be taken, or seized, by the officer.

Arrest and Miranda

Under the Fourth Amendment, a seizure refers to the collection of evidence by law enforcement officials and to the arrest of persons. An arrest occurs when a police officer takes a person against his or her will for questioning or criminal prosecution. The general rule is that to make an arrest, the police must obtain an arrest warrant. However, if an officer has probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and there is no time to obtain a warrant, the officer may make a warrantless arrest. Also, an officer may make a warrantless arrest of persons who commit a crime in the officer's presence. An invalid arrest is not generally a defense to prosecution. However, if an arrest is unsupported by probable cause, evidence obtained pursuant to the invalid arrest may be excluded from trial.

When an arrest is made, the arresting officer must read the Miranda warnings to the arrestee. The Miranda warnings apprise an arrestee of the right to obtain counsel and the right to remain silent. If these warnings are not read to an arrestee as soon as he or she is taken into custody, any statements the arrestee makes after the arrest may be excluded from trial.

Legal commentators have criticized Miranda and its subsequent line of decisions, stating that criminal suspects seldom truly understand the meaning or importance of the rights recited to them. Studies have indicated that the Miranda decision has had little effect on the numbers of confessions and requests for lawyers made by suspects in custody. Moreover, critics of Miranda cite concerns that the police may fabricate waivers, since a suspect's waiver of Miranda rights need not be recorded or made to a neutral party. Defenders of Miranda argue that it protects criminal suspects and reduces needless litigation by providing the police with concrete guidelines for permissible interrogation.

In 1999 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit fueled long-standing speculation that Miranda would be overruled when it held that the admissibility of confessions in federal court is governed not by Miranda, but by a federal statute enacted two years after Miranda. The statute, 18 U.S.C.A. § 3501, provides that a confession is admissible if voluntarily given. Congress enacted the statute to overturn Miranda, the Fourth Circuit said, and Congress had the authority to do so pursuant to its authority to overrule judicially created rules of evidence that are not mandated by the Constitution. U.S. v. Dickerson, 166 F.3d 667 (4th Cir. 1999).

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice william rehnquist, the Court said that, whether or not it agreed with Miranda, the principles of Stare Decisis weighed heavily against overruling it. While the Supreme Court has overruled its precedents when subsequent cases have undermined their doctrinal underpinnings, that has not happened to the Miranda decision, which the Court said "has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture." Although the Court acknowledged that a few guilty defendants may sometimes go free as the result of the application of the Miranda rule, "experience suggests that the totality-of-the-circumstances test [that] § 3501 seeks to revive is more difficult than Miranda for law enforcement officers to conform to and for courts to apply in a consistent manner." Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 120 S. Ct. 2326, 147 L. Ed. 2d 405 (2000).

The Search Warrant Requirement

A Search Warrant is a judicially approved document that authorizes law enforcement officials to search a particular place. To obtain a search warrant, a police officer must provide an account of information supporting probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place or places. The officer must also make a list of the particular places to be searched and the items sought. Finally, the officer must swear to the truthfulness of the information. The officer presents the information in an Affidavit to a magistrate or judge, who determines whether to approve the warrant.

An officer may search only the places where items identified in the search warrant may be found. For example, if the only item sought is a snowmobile, the officer may not rummage through desk drawers. Only the items listed in the warrant may be seized, unless other evidence of illegal activity is in plain view. Judges or magistrates may approve a variety of types of searches. The removal of blood from a person's body, a search of body cavities, and even surgery may be approved for the gathering of evidence. Electronic Surveillance and phone records may also be used to gather evidence upon the issuance of a warrant.

A warrant is not required for a search incident to a lawful arrest, the seizure of items in plain view, a border search, a search effected in open fields, a vehicle search (except for the trunk), an inventory search of an impounded vehicle, and any search necessitated by exigent circumstances. It is also not required for a Stop and Frisk, a limited search for weapons based on a reasonable suspicion that the subject has committed or is committing a crime. A police officer may also conduct a warrantless search if the subject consents.

Exceptions to Warrant Requirement

Administrative agencies may conduct warrantless searches of highly regulated industries, such as strip mining and food service. Federal and state statutes authorize warrantless, random drug testing of persons in sensitive positions, such as air traffic controllers, drug interdiction officers, railroad employees, and customs officials. In each of these types of searches, the Supreme Court has ruled that the need for public safety outweighs the countervailing privacy interests that would normally require a search warrant. However, a few lower federal courts have ruled that warrantless searches of public housing projects are unconstitutional, not withstanding the fact that residents of the public housings projects signed petitions supporting warrantless searches to rid their communities of drugs and weapons.

Nor may states pass a law requiring candidates for state political office to certify that they have taken a drug test and that the test result was negative without violating the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. In Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305, 117 S.Ct. 1295, 137 L.Ed.2d 513 (U.S. 1997), the state of Georgia failed to show a special need that was important enough to justify such drug testing and override the candidate's countervailing privacy interests, the Court said. Moreover, the Court found, the certification requirement was not well designed to identify candidates who violate anti-drug laws and was not a credible means to deter illicit drug users from seeking state office, since the Georgia law allowed the candidates to select the test date, and all but the prohibitively addicted could abstain from using drugs for a pretest period sufficient to avoid detection.

The Supreme Court has given law enforcement mixed signals over the constitutionality of warrantless motor vehicle checkpoints. The Court approved warrantless, suspicionless searches at roadside sobriety checkpoints. These searches must be carried out in some neutral, articulable way, such as by stopping every fifth car. However, a highway checkpoint program whose primary purpose is the discovery and interdiction of illegal narcotics violates the Fourth Amendment. In distinguishing between sobriety and drug interdiction checkpoints, the Court said that the sobriety checkpoints under review were designed to ensure roadway safety, while the primary purpose of the narcotics checkpoint under review had been to uncover evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, and, as such, the program contravened the Fourth Amendment. City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 121 S.Ct. 447, 148 L.Ed.2d 333 (U.S. 2000).

Warrant exceptions have been carved out by courts because requiring a warrant in certain situations would unnecessarily hamper law enforcement. For example, it makes little sense to require an officer to obtain a search warrant to seize contraband that is in plain view. Under the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement, the appropriateness of every warrantless search is decided on a case-by-case basis, weighing the defendant's privacy interests against the reasonable needs of law enforcement under the circumstances.

The Exclusionary Rule and the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree Doctrine

A criminal defendant's claim of unreasonable search and seizure is usually heard in a suppression hearing before the presiding trial judge. This hearing is conducted before trial to determine what evidence will be suppressed, or excluded, from trial. When a judge deems a search unreasonable, he or she frequently applies the Exclusionary Rule.

For the entire nineteenth century, a Fourth Amendment violation had little consequence. Evidence seized by law enforcement from a warrantless or otherwise unreasonable search was admissible at trial if the judge found it reliable. This made the Fourth Amendment essentially meaningless to criminal defendants. But in 1914, the U.S. Supreme Court devised a way to enforce the Fourth Amendment. In Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 34 S. Ct. 341, 58 L. Ed. 652 (1914), a federal agent conducted a warrantless search for evidence of gambling at the home of Fremont Weeks. The evidence seized in the search was used at trial, and Weeks was convicted. On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment barred the use of evidence secured through a warrantless search and seizure. Weeks's conviction was reversed and thus was born the exclusionary rule.

The exclusionary rule is a judicially created remedy used to deter police misconduct in obtaining evidence. Under the exclusionary rule, a judge may exclude incriminating evidence from a criminal trial if there was police misconduct in obtaining the evidence. Without the evidence, the prosecutor may lose the case or drop the charges for lack of proof. This rule provides some substantive protection against illegal search and seizure.

The exclusionary rule was constitutionally required only in federal court until mapp v. ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S. Ct. 1684, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1081 (1961). In Mapp, the Court held that the exclusionary rule applied to state criminal proceedings through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Before the Mapp ruling, not all states excluded evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. After Mapp, a defendant's claim of unreasonable search and seizure became commonplace in criminal prosecutions.

The application of the exclusionary rule has been significantly limited by a Good Faith exception created by the Supreme Court in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 104 S. Ct. 3405, 82 L. Ed. 2d 677 (1984). Under the good faith exception, evidence obtained in violation of a person's Fourth Amendment rights will not be excluded from trial if the law enforcement officer, though mistaken, acts reasonably. For example, if an officer reasonably conducts a search relying on information that is later proved to be false, any evidence seized in the search will not be excluded if the officer acted in good faith, with a reasonable reliance on the information. The Supreme Court has carved out this exception to the exclusionary rule because, according to a majority of the court, the rule was designed to deter police misconduct, and excluding evidence when the police did not misbehave would not deter police misconduct.

A companion to the exclusionary rule is the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree doctrine, established by the Supreme Court in Nardone v. United States, 308 U.S. 338, 60 S. Ct. 266, 84 L. Ed. 307 (1939). Under this doctrine, a court may exclude from trial any evidence derived from the results of an illegal search. For example, assume that an illegal search has garnered evidence of illegal explosives. This evidence is then used to obtain a warrant to search the suspect's home. The exclusionary rule excludes the evidence initially used to obtain the search warrant, and the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine excludes any evidence obtained in a search of the home.

The Knock and Announce Requirement

The Fourth Amendment incorporates the Common Law requirement that police officers entering a dwelling must knock on the door and announce their identity and purpose before attempting forcible entry. At the same time, the Supreme Court has recognized that the "flexible requirement of reasonableness should not be read to mandate a rigid rule of announcement that ignores countervailing law enforcement interests." Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927, 115 S.Ct. 1914, 131 L.Ed.2d 976 (1995). Instead, the Court left to the lower courts the task of determining the circumstances under which an unannounced entry is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that police officers are never required to knock and announce their presence when executing a search warrant in a felony drug investigation. But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state high court's decision in Richards v. Wisconsin, 520 U.S. 385, 117 S.Ct. 1416, 137 L.Ed.2d 615 (U.S. 1997). In Richards the Court said Fourth Amendment does not permit a blanket exception to the knock-and-announce requirement for the execution of a search warrant in a felony drug investigation. The fact that felony drug investigations may frequently present circumstances warranting a no-knock entry, the Court said, cannot remove from the neutral scrutiny of a reviewing court the reasonableness of the police decision not to knock and announce in a particular case. Rather, it is the duty of a court to determine whether the facts and circumstances of the particular entry justified dispensing with the knock-and-announce requirement. To justify a no-knock entry, the Court stressed that police must have a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence, under the particular circumstances, would be dangerous or futile, or that it would inhibit the effective investigation of the crime by, for example, allowing the destruction of evidence.

The Fourth Amendment does not hold police officers to a higher standard when a no-knock entry results in the destruction of property. U.S. v. Ramirez, 523 U.S. 65, 118 S.Ct. 992, 140 L.Ed.2d 191 (U.S. 1998). The "reasonable suspicion" standard is still applicable. No Fourth Amendment violation occurred when, the Supreme Court found, during the execution of a "no-knock" warrant to enter and search a home, police officers broke a single window in a garage and pointed a gun through the opening. A reliable confidential informant had notified the police that an escaped prisoner might be inside the home, and an officer had confirmed that possibility, the Court said. The escapee had a violent past and reportedly had access to a large supply of weapons, and the police broke the window to discourage any occupant of the house from rushing to weapons. However, excessive or unnecessary destruction of property in the course of a search may violate the Fourth Amendment, the court emphasized, even though the entry itself is lawful and the fruits of the search are not subject to suppression.

Search and Seizure at Public Schools

A public school student's protection against unreasonable search and seizure is less stringent in school than in the world at large. In New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 105 S.Ct. 733, 83 L.Ed.2d 720 (U.S. 1985), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a school principal could search a student's purse without probable cause or a warrant. Considering the "legitimate need to maintain an environment in which learning can take place," the Court set a lower level of reasonableness for searches by school personnel.

Under ordinary circumstances, the Court said, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be "justified at its inception" when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. Such a search will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction. The "ordinary circumstances" justifying a warrantless search and seizure of a public school student, the Court continued, are limited to searches and seizures that take place on-campus or off-campus at school-sponsored events. Warrantless searches of public school students who are found off campus and not attending a school-sponsored event would still contravene the Fourth Amendment.

Further readings

Beckham, Joseph. 1997. Student Searches in Public Schools. Arlington, Va.: Educational Research Service.

Bloom, Robert M. 2003. Searches, Seizures, and Warrants: A Reference Guide to the United States Constitution. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Bradley, Craig M. 2002. "Court Gives School Drug-Testing an A." Trial Magazine (December 1).

Greenhalgh, William W. 2003. The Fourth Amendment Handbook: A Chronological Survey of Supreme Court Decisions. 2d ed. Chicago, Ill.: Criminal Justice Section, American Bar Association.Hemphill, Geoffrey G. 1995. "The Administrative Search Doctrine: Isn't This Exactly What the Framers Were Trying to Avoid?" Regent University Law Review 5.


Alcohol; Automobiles; Criminal Law; Criminal Procedure; Drugs and Narcotics; Due Process of Law; Mapp v. Ohio; Miranda v. Arizona; Olmstead v. United States; Plain View Doctrine; Search Warrant; Terry v. Ohio; Wiretapping.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

search and seizure

n. examination of a person's premises (residence, business, or vehicle) by law enforcement officers looking for evidence of the commission of a crime, and the taking (seizure and removal) of articles of evidence (such as controlled narcotics, a pistol, counterfeit bills, a blood-soaked blanket). The basic question is whether the search and seizure were "unreasonable" under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution (applied to the states under the 14th Amendment), which provides: "The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." Thus, searches and seizures must be under the authority of a search warrant or when the officer has solid facts that give him/her "probable cause" to believe there was evidence of a specific crime in the premises and no time to get a warrant. Evidence obtained in violation of the Constitution is not admissible in court, nor is evidence traced through such illegal evidence. (See: search, search warrant, probable cause, fruit of the poisonous tree)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.