Every United States citizen has the right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. This privacy right extends from your person to your home, car, and immediate possessions. If there is a sufficient reason, the police can search you and your property; however, the police cannot just search for anything at any time.
Sometimes, law enforcement has the right to invade this privacy and search your property. However, this is not always the case. The police cannot just search anything at any time. Here, I will discuss some of the situations in which law enforcement conduct unlawful searches in Connecticut. By knowing what is a legal and an illegal search, you can make sure that your rights are protected.
Protections Under the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment, among other things, protects citizens from unlawful search and seizure. Under the Fourth Amendment, protection applies to situations in which a law enforcement agent makes a stop or an arrest. It applies to law enforcement searches of places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. This refers to places like a person’s home, car, clothing, personal bags, etc.
There are regulations that the police need to follow if they are going to lawfully search your personal property. If they do not follow the proper procedures, any evidence collected in an unlawful search can be inadmissible in court. Of course, the amount of protection that you have and the proper procedures will vary based on your personal situation.
There are many situations in which the Fourth Amendment applies and your right to privacy should be upheld. A few common ones include:
- If stopped by a police officer on the street.
- If pulled over while driving and the police officer wants to search your car or trunk.
- During an arrest.
- When a police officer comes into your apartment or home.
- When a police officer comes into your business.
- If a law enforcement agent places your personal property or vehicle under police control.
In most cases, the police cannot search your property in these circumstances unless they have:
- A valid arrest warrant.
- A valid search warrant.
- Probable cause that a crime occurred.
However, there are exceptions to the warrant requirement. When our attorneys review police searches, the line is often blurred between lawful searches and illegal searches. But when the search is unlawful, our Constitution provides a remedy.
Imagine this situation: You are spotted walking around on the sidewalk outside the front window of a department store. It is almost closing time for the store. A police officer asks you to stop and wants to question you. The police officer does not have a warrant. Is it legal for the police to stop and question you?
YES, under these circumstances. If the police officer has a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is taking place, or has just taken place, the police officer has the right to stop you for some very brief investigatory questioning. In this scenario, the police officer believed that you were “casing” the department store in preparation for a robbery.
Can the officer conduct a pat-down to search for a weapon? YES, so long as the police officer has a reasonable belief that you might be armed with a weapon. In this scenario, the police officer suspected you were preparing to rob the department store. Robberies often involve use of weapons. Therefore, for their own safety, the police officer is justified in performing a pat-down of your person.
However, the cop’s authority to search is limited to a pat-down for weapons. The officer does not have the right to perform a more detailed search, or even a general search for evidence of crimes.
How about this: The police believe that there is evidence located inside of a garden shed in your backyard. The shed is not attached to your house, but it is locked.
Can the police search your shed without a warrant?
Your shed is locked, and it is located on your property. You have a clear expectation of privacy in its contents. The police need a warrant signed by a judge to search your backyard shed.
Consider this: The police pull over your car for speeding. You are nervous and seem like you have something to hide. On a hunch, the police officer wants to search your trunk for evidence of a crime. Can the police officer search your trunk?
Unless you let them, or otherwise give them a justified reason (probable cause), the police have no legal right to search your trunk.
What about this: You place your garbage in a trash bags. Every Monday, you take your trash bags from your garage for pick-up. The trash bags are placed just beyond the end of your driveway on the public sidewalk. The police search your trash can before it is collected. The police do not have a warrant. Is this legal?
YES. The Courts have ruled that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of trash cans placed off of your property.
How about this: You like marijuana. You have a vegetable garden and decide to grow your own marijuana plants. Growing (your own) marijuana is against the law. The police are doing random fly-overs with their police helicopter. They do not have a search warrant for your property. One of the officers in the helicopter spots your marijuana plants. Is this fly over search legal?
YES. You have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the air/space above your property. Your marijuana plant was in “plain view” to anyone up in the helicopter. There is nothing unconstitutional about this search.
And this: The police think that you sell drugs. They came to your house before and you sent them away because they did not have a warrant. Today, the police come back to your house right after you leave for work. They still do not have a search warrant. You and your spouse jointly own your home. They ask your spouse if they can enter and search the home. Your spouse says, “Sure, come on in. We have nothing to hide.” The police search your home and find lots of narcotics. Is this search legal?
YES. Your spouse is one of the co-owners of the home, and consented to the search. Agreeing to allow the search (consent) is one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. If you agree to let them search, you are waiving privacy.
The difference between a legal search and an illegal search often turns on the facts of the particular situation. The Fourth Amendment protects people; not things. Your degree of protection depends upon the reasonableness of your privacy expectation.
If your civil rights were violated because of an unlawful search, you have the right to work with a lawyer and sue the police officer for money damages.
Discuss Unlawful Searches with a Connecticut Attorney
If you think that you are the victim of an unlawful search, you should contact an attorney as soon as possible. An attorney can review the circumstances of your situation and help you determine if the police followed procedure or not. If they did not follow procedure, any evidence gathered in the unlawful search can’t incriminate you. In some situations, charges against you will be dropped altogether if an unlawful search took place.
Unlawful searches in Connecticut do happen, since it can be difficult to follow procedure. Don’t let yourself get taken advantage of – contact a lawyer and have your situation reviewed today!