The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects U.S. citizens from “unreasonable”
search and seizure. In other words, citizens have the right to privacy,
be it in their homes, in their cars, in their pockets, and much more.
Thus, law enforcement and authority figures are barred from stopping you
without reason and searching you for evidence that shows you may have
committed a crime.
This is particularly important when it comes to drug possession charges.
Officers are constantly on the lookout for people who are in possession
of drugs or drug paraphernalia, as these objects and substances are prohibited
and therefore illegal to have in your possession. However, unless officers
legal search for these things, they can’t be held against you.
What Makes Search Reasonable?
If you have to ask whether or not a search is “reasonable,”
the safe assumption is it’s not. Officers may only search someone
if one of a very limited number of circumstances is present. Those circumstances are:
- You give them permission to conduct a search
- They get a search warrant
- They reasonably believe that going through the process of getting a search
warrant will lead to the destruction and loss of evidence
- Your circumstances fall into a “special needs” exception
- No search was necessary
Why Is Reasonable Search Important?
When a search isn’t conducted legally, any evidence obtained from
that search can’t be submitted in court. This is known as the “exclusionary
rule,” and it has been upheld by the Supreme Court in several cases
since it was first introduced in 1914. The same rule was then applied
to state courts in 1961.
In drug possession cases, this is particularly important because the most
obvious evidence against someone accused is the drugs themselves. If an
officer unreasonably searches someone and seizes the drugs in their possession,
the drugs can’t be submitted as evidence in court because they were
illegally obtained. Thus, they’re excluded and in many cases the
prosecution’s case usually falls apart.
When Is A Search Unnecessary?
Remember earlier how we said one reason a search could be made reasonable
is that no search was necessary? This is known as the “plain view”
exception. In other words, contraband that pertains to a police investigation
may be submitted as evidence without being obtained via a search if the
contraband was in plain public view, and thus not subject to the same
guarantee of privacy.
For example, an officer stops a suspect walking down the street with a
large bag of marijuana in their hands. Under the “plain view”
exception, the officer would be allowed to seize the controlled substance
and arrest the suspect for drug possession. In this instance, the officer
doesn’t actually need to conduct a search because the evidence that
the crime had been committed (the bag of marijuana) was in plain view
and the suspect did not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
The same thing applies to things left in plain view in your car. Even though
the contents of your car are protected by the same search restrictions
under the Fourth Amendment, contraband left in plain view through one
of the windows doesn’t actually require a search to be performed
since the average person would be able to spot the contraband, and thus
know that a crime had been committed.