Law enforcement officers – both the local police and federal agents – must follow rules designed to protect the privacy rights of citizens. When they do not follow these rules, the result can be an illegal search and seizure. When law enforcement executes a search without a warrant or probable cause, it is a violation of the constitution, and the evidence may be excluded from court.

The New York civil rights lawyers at Friedman, Levy, Goldfarb, & Green value the protections of the Fourth Amendment and work to educate our clients on their rights under the law.

Search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment

Regardless of whether the search is carried out by state or federal law enforcement, the U.S. Constitution and federal court decisions dictate whether it was handled properly.

The Fourth Amendment limits the power of the police to search a person or place, seize contraband, and make arrests. It 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.”

The Fourth Amendment was adopted to protect citizens from invasions of privacy by an over-reaching state. It originally only restricted the federal government but was later extended to apply to the states. A series of court cases fleshed out what kinds of searches and seizures are reasonable and what happens when they are unreasonable.

Requirements for a valid search and seizure

A search and seizure is not valid unless it is based on either a warrant that was issued based on probable cause that a crime had been committed or upon an exception. This applies when a person has what is known as a legitimate expectation of privacy in the place or thing to be searched. So, for example, if the police wanted to search the lobby of the apartment complex where a suspect lived, there would be no reasonable expectation of privacy in this public space.

Was there a valid warrant?

A search warrant is a type of court order signed by a judge or magistrates. It must be addressed to the person who is to be searched or who owns the property to be searched and be based on probable cause that a crime has been committed and that evidence will be found there.

To be valid, a search warrant must:

  • Be filed in good faith by the law enforcement officer;
  • Be based on reliable information that demonstrates probable cause;
  • Be signed by a neutral and detached judge; and
  • State with specificity the place to be searched and the items to be seized.

If the police do not have a valid warrant, the search may be illegal unless there was a valid exception.

Exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant

Common exceptions to the warrant requirement include:

  • Plain view – An officer can seize items that are in plain view if he is on the premises legally
  • Consent – No warrant is necessary if a person with a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place or thing to be searched voluntarily gives permission
  • Search incident to arrest – While making a lawful arrest, the police may search an individual’s person, immediate surroundings, and passenger compartment of their nearby vehicle for weapons or other dangerous items
  • Exigent circumstances – Police may search an area without a warrant if they reasonably believe that evidence will be destroyed or others will be placed in imminent danger if they wait for a warrant
  • Hot pursuit – If police chase a criminal fleeing from a public place into a private dwelling, they may enter the area and search it without a warrant

Was I the victim of an illegal search and seizure?

If the police or federal law enforcement did not follow the rules for a search warrant and there was no valid exception, you may have been subjected to an illegal search and seizure. This may mean that the police cannot use the evidence seized – or any information that they obtained because of it – against you in court. The most important thing you can do is speak with a New York civil rights lawyer as soon as possible. Each case is unique. For a personalized analysis of our situation, schedule a consultation with a personal injury lawyer at Friedman, Levy, Goldfarb & Green. Our attorneys counsel clients throughout NYC and the surrounding area – including Manhattan, the Bronx, and Long Island – when they believe their rights have been violated.